Egypt May Avoid Civil War, But Bloody Conflict Could Continue For Years

Update: 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."

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."

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Egyptian authorities on Thursday significantly raised the death toll from clashes the previous day between police and supporters of the ousted Islamist president, saying more than 500 people died and laying bare the extent of the violence that swept much of the country.

Despite the government's declaration of a nighttime curfew and a state of emergency, violence continued into the next day. Angry men presumed to be supporters of deposed President Mohammed Morsi stormed and torched two buildings housing the provincial government of Giza, the city across the Nile from Cairo.

The death toll, which stood at 525, according to the latest Health Ministry figures, makes Wednesday by far the deadliest day since the 2011 popular uprising that toppled longtime ruler and autocrat Hosni Mubarak — a grim milestone that does not bode well for the future of a nation roiled in turmoil and divisions for the past 2 ½ years.

Health Ministry spokesman Khaled el-Khateeb put the number of the injured on Wednesday at 3,717.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which ousted President Mohammed Morsi hails, put the death toll at a staggering 2,600 and the injured at around 10,000 — figures that are extremely high in light of footage by regional and local TV networks, as well as The Associated Press.

In Thursday's violence at the Giza provincial governor's office, Associated Press reporters saw the buildings — a two-story colonial style villa and a four-story administrative building —ablaze. The Giza government offices are located on the road that leads to the Pyramids.

State TV blamed supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi for the fire.

Meanwhile, near the site of one of the smashed encampments of Morsi's supporters in Cairo's eastern Nasr City district, an Associated Press reporter on Thursday saw dozens of blood-soaked bodies stored inside a mosque. The bodies were wrapped in sheets and still unclaimed by families.

Relatives at the scene were uncovering the faces in an attempt to identify their loved ones. Many complained that authorities were preventing them from obtaining permits to bury their dead.

El-Khateeb said 202 of the 525 were killed in the Nasr City protest camp, but it was not immediately clear whether the bodies at the mosque were included in that figure. Another Health Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Fathallah, said he had no knowledge of the bodies at the el-Iman mosque.

Victims' names were scribbled on white sheets covering their bodies, some of which were charred. Posters of Morsi were scattered on the floor.

"They accuse us of setting fire to ourselves. Then, they accuse us of torturing people and dumping their bodies. Now, they kill us and then blame us," screamed a woman in a head-to-toe black niqab.

Omar Houzien, a volunteer helping families search for their loved ones, said the bodies were brought in from the Medical Center at the sit-in camp site in the final hours of Wednesday's police sweep because of fears that they would be burned.

A list plastered on the wall listed 265 names of those said to have been killed in Wednesday's violence at the sit-in. Funerals for identified victims were expected to take place later on Thursday.

Meanwhile, a mass police funeral — with caskets draped in the white, red and black Egyptian flag — was held in Cairo for some of the 43 security troops whom authorities said were killed in Wednesday's clashes.

Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of the police, led the mourners. A police band played funerary music as a somber funeral procession moved with the coffins placed atop red fire engines.

Wednesday's violence started with riot police raiding and clearing out the two camps, sparking clashes there and elsewhere in the Egyptian capital and other cities.

Cairo, a city of some 18 million people, was uncharacteristically quiet Thursday, with only a fraction of its usually hectic traffic and many stores and government offices shuttered. Many people hunkered down at home for fear of more violence. Banks and the stock market were closed.

The Brotherhood has called for fresh protests nationwide on Thursday, raising the specter of renewed violence. It warned that the protests would grow in intensity, but gave no details. By early afternoon, dozens of Morsi supporters were blocking a main road near the site of the Nasr City camp, disrupting traffic.

The latest events in Egypt drew widespread condemnation from the Muslim world and the West, including the United States, Egypt's main foreign backer for over 30 years.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei resigned later Wednesday as Egypt's interim vice president in protest — a blow to the new leadership's credibility with the pro-reform movement.

Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said in a televised address to the nation that it was a "difficult day" and that he regretted the bloodshed but offered no apologies for moving against Morsi's supporters, saying they were given ample warnings to leave and he had tried foreign mediation efforts.

The leaders of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood called it a "massacre." Several prominent Brotherhood figures were detained as police swept through the two sit-in sites, scores of other Islamists were taken into custody, and the future of the once-banned movement was uncertain.

Backed by helicopters, police fired tear gas and used armored bulldozers to plow into the barricades at the two protest camps on opposite ends of Cairo. Morsi's supporters had been camped out since before he was ousted by a July 3 coup that followed days of mass protests by millions of Egyptians demanding that he step down.

The smaller camp — near Cairo University in Giza — was cleared of protesters relatively quickly, but it took about 12 hours for police to take control of the main sit-in site near the Rabaah al-Adawiya Mosque in Nasr City that has served as the epicenter of the pro-Morsi campaign and had drawn chanting throngs of men, women and children only days earlier.

After the police moved on the camps, street battles broke out in Cairo and other cities across Egypt. Government buildings and police stations were attacked, roads were blocked, and Christian churches were torched, Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said.

At one point, protesters trapped a police Humvee on an overpass near the Nasr City camp and pushed it off, according to images posted on social networking sites that showed an injured policeman on the ground below, near a pool of blood and the overturned vehicle.

Three journalists were among the dead: Mick Deane, 61, a cameraman for British broadcaster Sky News; Habiba Ahmed Abd Elaziz, 26, a reporter for the Gulf News, a state-backed newspaper in the United Arab Emirates; and Ahmed Abdel Gawad, who wrote for Egypt's state-run newspaper Al Akhbar. Deane and Elaziz were shot to death, their employers said, while the Egyptian Press Syndicate, a journalists' union, said it had no information on how Gawad was killed.

The turmoil was the latest chapter in a bitter standoff between Morsi's supporters and the interim leadership that took over the Arab world's most populous country. The military ousted Morsi after millions of Egyptians massed in the streets at the end of June to call for him to step down, accusing him of giving the Brotherhood undue influence and failing to implement vital reforms or bolster the ailing economy.

Morsi has been held at an undisclosed location since July 3. Other Brotherhood leaders have been charged with inciting violence or conspiring in the killing of protesters.

A security official said 200 protesters were arrested at both camps. Several men could be seen walking with their hands up as they were led away by black-clad police.

The Brotherhood has spent most of the 85 years since its creation as an outlawed group or enduring crackdowns by successive governments. The latest developments could provide authorities with the grounds to once again declare it an illegal group and consign it to the political wilderness.

In his televised address, el-Beblawi said the government could not indefinitely tolerate a challenge to authority that the 6-week-old protests represented.

"We want to see a civilian state in Egypt, not a military state and not a religious state," he said.

But the resignation of ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. nuclear agency and a figure widely respected by Western governments, was the first crack to emerge in the government as a result of the violence.

ElBaradei had made it clear in recent weeks that he was against the use of force to end the protests. At least 250 people have died in previous clashes since the coup that ousted Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president.

On Wednesday, his letter of resignation to interim President Adly Mansour carried an ominous message to a nation already torn by more than two years of turmoil.

"It has become difficult for me to continue to take responsibility for decisions I disapprove of, and I fear their consequences," he said in the letter that was emailed to The Associated Press. "I cannot take responsibility before God, my conscience and country for a single drop of blood, especially because I know it was possible to spare it.

The National Salvation front, the main opposition grouping that he headed during Morsi's year in office, said it regretted his departure and complained that it was not consulted beforehand. Tamarod, the youth group behind the mass anti-Morsi protests that preceded the coup, said ElBaradei was dodging his responsibility at a time when his services were needed.

Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, the powerful head of Al-Azhar mosque, Sunni Islam's main seat of learning, also sought to distance himself from the violence. He said in a statement he had no prior knowledge of the action.

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