Egypt may avoid civil war — but bloody conflict could continue for years

An Egyptian walks amid charred debris of the Nahda sit-in camp, which was destroyed Wednesday by security forces, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt faced a new phase of uncertainty on Thursday after its bloodiest day, with hundreds of people reported killed and thousands injured. Manu Brabo / AP

Blood-soaked protests, burned churches, and a top-level government official resigning in Egypt have analysts predicting mass turmoil, but stopping just short of suggesting a civil war is imminent in the tumultuous nation.

Supporters of Egypt's ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi experienced a dizzying display of violence Wednesday — over 600 people have been killed and more than 3,500 injured in clashes with the military — and fears grew that the violence will persist.

"I don't think there's any reason to expect calm for years," said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. "You have a very divided country."

Still, experts said that despite the ongoing civil war in Syria and the 2011 civil war in Libya, it's not likely that Egypt will be the next nation in the region to experience one.

Yet all said they expected more disorder in the near-term.

"I don't think Egypt is descending into civil war, but it's certainly descending into civil strife," said Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Brookings Institute. "I don't see any of the key players, including and especially the military, reassessing the direction that they're moving in."

Adel Iskandar, a professor at Georgetown University and author of "Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution," agreed.

"The future is very ominous," he said. "But I'm convinced that at the end of the day the two sides will come together and try to reach a resolution. There may be more loss of life before that happens, but I don't see a situation where Egypt will descend into civil war."

Also, most of the protesters in Egypt are unarmed, meaning a militant civil war is unlikely.

"You wouldn't have a civil war unless there were people who were really willing to fight the army with arms," Abrams said. "It's not, I think, going to look like Syria."

Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, added that because the military controls 35 to 40 percent of the economy, it was unlikely the military would splinter like it did in other countries.

"In Egypt, you don't have a huge armed population, and the chance of the military splitting the way it happened first in Libya and later in Syria is less likely because the role of the military in Egyptian society has been very separate from the population, and very privileged."

The military's troubles with the Muslim Brotherhood — Morsi's party — and its supporters have deepened since he was overthrown on July 3. 

In addition to the mass killings and injuries on Wednesday, interim government minister Mohamed ElBaradei resigned and churches were set on fire in the chaos. The Christian community, which has mostly remained outside of the conflict, is now very much part of it.

"I see yesterday being a day that is marked in Egyptian history as the day that Egypt was able to come back from the edge of disaster. Or at least, that's my hope," Iskandar said.

While Wednesday's violence was unprecedented, Egypt's reaction to political tumult has been consistent since Hosni Mubarak's regime ended in 2011, Elgindy said. 

"Since the ouster of Mubarak two and a half years ago, I would say the main constant has been that at each fork in the road, Egyptian political actors have consistently chosen the wrong path," Elgindy said. "There have been multiple crises, and with each new crisis, instead of reassessing and trying to correct the problem, they end up deepening it."

Violent crackdown in Egypt leads to hundreds of deaths 3:16

For Egypt to find stability, Elgindy said, what is needed is a "process of national reconciliation."

"What that requires is some interlocutor who is trusted by all sides who can sit the parties down and get them to come to terms with one another rather than this zero-sum 'it's us or you' mentality that is being adopted right now," he said. 

He proposed that American and European officials might be best suited to mediate such a resolution, but added, "If it's going to happen, it needs to happen soon, because otherwise the positions will continue to entrench, and of course there will continue to be more deaths and more funerals."

Officials from those countries have issued the strongest condemnation for Egypt's violence. On Thursday, President Obama told reporters, "We deplore violence against civilians," and canceled a planned joint military operation with Egypt in protest to the clashes.

Obama did not, however, in his speech make any mention of the $1.3 billion in annual military aid that the U.S. gives to Egypt, but the U.S. State Department later said it would review aid to Egypt "in all forms." 

The U.S. has still not determined whether the July 3 ouster of Morsi was technically a "coup" or not. If it was a coup, the U.S. would be required to cut off aid to the country. The lack of action has prompted outrage and questioning of the administration.

"People have been asking the administration to suspend the aid for a month and to call the coup a coup, and for the administration to do that now would be admitting that it had made a mistake in failing to so earlier," Abrams, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said.

Even if the U.S. were to eventually retract the military support, it may not greatly affect U.S.-Egyptian relations, Iskandar said.

"It's a drop in the bucket as far of the Egyptian military," he said. "They're rolling in billions — tens if not hundreds of billions. 1.3 billion is very, very minuscule."