This week the world was offered a sickening glimpse of what could happen in Egypt if the current political crisis continues. The violence which erupted in eastern Cairo on Wednesday night is being interpreted as a worrying turning point by many here. One Egyptian blogger told me he believed the watershed was actually reached two weeks ago when Mohamed Morsi announced his controversial power grab to the nation. The brutal scenes which unfolded on the streets of the capital, he said, were simply the inevitable, bloody manifestation.
Some activists are bandying around words like “civil war” to describe the situation facing the nation. A quick glance at the news coming out of Syria shows you how absurd such a description is, but it is a telling example of how developments this week are being interpreted.
The rioting which shook the streets of Heliopolis–the middle-class neighbourhood where the Presidential Palace is located—was unprecedented in one important respect. With a great mass of several thousand Egyptians facing off against each other in the side streets around the palace, the sheer scale of the clashes was disturbing, but perhaps more worrying still was the identity of the combatants.
There have been outbreaks of violence between Mr Morsi’s supporters and opponents before. After he issued his constitutional declaration last month, in which he obtained virtual supremacy over all aspects of government, fighting erupted across the country and a number of Muslim Brotherhood offices were torched. This week was different though. Never before has there been such a massive confrontation between the two sides, particularly not in Cairo.
Where once the secular liberal opposition were battling the nation’s central security forces, this week their stones were aimed at fellow protesters consisting of Islamist factions and the president’s supporters. It is for this reason that there have been whispers of impending civil strife. The fact that there were reports of shotguns and pistols being used by both sides has only given credence to such concerns.
The seeds of this week’s violence lie in the frustration that many of Mr Morsi’s opponents feel about his approach to government. They lived for decades under the previous autocrat—they really do not want another.
The Muslim Brotherhood refute any allegations of quasi-despotic behaviour. If one accepts their explanations—and most of the liberal opposition, wracked by bitter mistrust, do not—then it is easy to see the motivation behind Mr Morsi’s recent actions. An organisation which suffered half a century of oppression has now finally realised its goal of political power. Egypt’s judiciary, with its controversial decision to dissolve the last parliament, is in their minds an obstacle to reform—hence the president’s move to usurp their responsibilities.
Yet in the minds of many within the opposition, this only means that an unaccountable elite which was toppled by last year’s uprising has been replaced by another.
A tense calm had settled in the capital today—helped by the tanks and troops deployed to protect the Presidential Palace. But with more demonstrations planned and Egypt’s leading opposition parties refusing to parlay with the President, this crisis looks set to get much worse.