A protester is seen carrying national flags while walking near flames from Molotov cocktails thrown during clashes with riot police near Cairo's Tahrir Square (Reuters file).

Nearly six months after the mass uprising-cum-coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi, the key cleavages of Egypt’s domestic political conflict are not only unresolved, but unresolvable. The generals who removed Morsi are engaged in an existential struggle with the Muslim Brotherhood: They believe they must destroy the Brotherhood – by, for instance, designating it a terrorist organization – or else the Brotherhood will return to power and destroy them.

Meanwhile, Sinai-based jihadists have used Morsi’s removal as a pretext for intensifying their violence, and have increasingly hit targets west of the Suez Canal. Even the Brotherhood’s fiercest opponents are fighting among themselves: the coalition of entrenched state institutions and leftist political parties that rebelled against Morsi is fraying, and the youth activists who backed Morsi’s ouster in July are now protesting against the military-backed government, which has responded by arresting their leaders.

So despite the fact that Egypt’s post-Morsi transition is technically moving forward, with a new draft constitution expected to pass via referendum in mid-January and elections to follow shortly thereafter, the country is a tinderbox that could ignite with any spark, entirely derailing the political process and converting Egypt’s episodic tumult into severe instability. What might that spark be? Here are three possibilities:

insight washinstitute INSIGHT: Egypt   a Tinderbox Waiting for a Spark1. A high-profile political assassination. While he may be as well-guarded as any top official, Egyptian Defense Minister (and de facto ruler) Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is squarely in the Muslim Brotherhood’s crosshairs. He is, after all, the face of the coup that toppled Morsi, and he later called Egyptians to the streets to seek their “authorization” for a subsequent crackdown that killed more than 1,000 Morsi supporters.

The Brotherhood hasn’t been shy in calling for his death. Brotherhood protests frequently feature images of Sisi with a noose around his neck for “treason,” and the Brotherhood-backed Anti-Coup Alliance recently tweeted, “the people want the murderer executed,” in an apparent reference to Sisi.

Moreover, in December, a pro-Brotherhood website even reported excitedly (double exclamation points and all) that an assassination attempt against Sisi had already taken place, adding that Sisi was hastily flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment, where he refused to have his leg amputated so that he wouldn’t have to retire from the military. (This was, of course, false.) And while the Brotherhood has been implicated in political assassinations previously, such as the 1948 murder of Prime Minister Mahmoud al-Nuqrashi, it is hardly the only or best-equipped organization that wants Sisi dead: The Egyptian general is currently overseeing a military campaign against Sinai-based jihadists, who attempted to assassinate Egypt’s interior minister in Cairo in early September and have repeatedly attacked security installations, most recently in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura and governorate of Sharkiya.

“…Egypt’s unsettled political situation and swell of violence make the atmosphere ripe for further upheaval.” – Eric Trager, The Washington Institute

If Sisi were assassinated, it would have two effects. First, the military would likely respond with an even more severe crackdown on the Brotherhood than the one that is already underway. This is precisely what happened following a 1954 assassination attempt on Gamal Abdel Nasser that was blamed on the Brotherhood: thousands of Muslim Brothers were detained, tortured, and executed over the next two decades. Second, given the current expectation that Sisi will either run for president or act as the kingmaker, his assassination would catalyze intense competition among various security officials who would vie – directly or via proxies – for the presidency. This would further weaken Egypt’s already disjointed state, raising the prospect of even greater violence.

reu egypt trager2a 300 06jan14 INSIGHT: Egypt   a Tinderbox Waiting for a Spark

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi steps on a poster of Egypt's current de facto leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi during a protest in Cairo Aug. 23, 2013. (Reuters)

2. Protests and/or violence at polling stations. Egyptians are widely expected to approve the referendum of the new constitution in January – no referendum in Egyptian history has ever resulted in a “no.” But the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies reject the post-Morsi political process and are reportedly planning to thwart the plebiscite by protesting at polling stations and preventing voters from entering the booths. While one must take reports about the Brotherhood in the Egyptian press with a heavy chunk of salt, the organization’s statements in recent weeks comparing voting in the referendum to “participation in bloodshed” suggest that aggressive action is possible. And the fact that Egyptian security forces are planning for this possibility is hardly reassuring: Egypt’s notoriously brutal police would likely engage the obstructionists violently, and those areas in which Islamists are particularly strong might be able to hold off government forces for a while, as occurred in the Giza town of Kerdasa in September.

This sort of incident wouldn’t just delay the vote – it would reveal the transitional government’s weakness. This would encourage the Brotherhood to escalate its protest activities, and might also encourage the Sinai jihadists to escalate their attacks. Rather than moving quickly toward the next rounds of elections, Egypt would be headed toward persistent civil strife.

3. A major terrorist incident in the Suez Canal. In August, Sinai-based jihadists fired rockets at a Panamanian-flagged cargo ship passing through the Suez Canal. While the Egyptian military responded with a major ground offensive against the jihadists shortly thereafter and beefed up security along the canal, Egypt’s generals admit that the campaign in Sinai has proven much more difficult than they expected. Moreover, subsequent terrorist attacks against both military and civilian targets suggest that the jihadists are extremely determined and, at times, very well-armed: terrorists filmed themselves firing an RPG in Cairo in October, and an explosion outside a camp for security forces in Ismailia in December wounded 30 people.

reu arab spring egypt 300 19dec13 INSIGHT: Egypt   a Tinderbox Waiting for a Spark

A poster of deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi lies on the ground as military police stand on Cairo's burnt Rabaa Adawiya Square, the morning after the clearing of a pro-Morsi protest camp Aug. 15, 2013. (Reuters)

A major attack on the Suez Canal would be particularly devastating. In addition to embarrassing the military-backed government internationally, it would harm the one source of domestically generated state revenue that has remained relatively stable despite the political tumult of the past three years. The current government can’t afford to lose it: Despite a $12 billion pledge from Persian Gulf states in the immediate aftermath of Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s cash reserves have declined in recent months – dropping from $18.6 billion in October to $17.8 billion in November. Meanwhile, the government has announced plans to increase the minimum wage for government employees and preserve the costly food-subsidy program. A sharp dip in Suez Canal revenue would affect the government’s ability to meet its obligations, and ongoing cash-reserve declines could spell the return of the constant blackouts and long gas lines that plagued Morsi during his final months in office. Mass anger, and the beginnings of a possible uprising, would likely follow.

There’s a slim chance, of course, that any of these particular scenarios will occur. But Egypt’s unsettled political situation and swell of violence make the atmosphere ripe for further upheaval. Something will likely give.

This post was previously published on WashingtonInstitute.org. ©2014 The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Reprinted with permission.

The views expressed in this Insight are the author’s own and are not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you’d like to share your opinion on this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. If you are a Middle East expert or analyst associated with an established academic institution, think tank or non-governmental organization, we invite you to contribute your perspectives on events and issues about or relevant to the region. Please email us through our Contact page with a short proposal for an Insight post or send us a link to an existing post already published on your institutional blog.

 INSIGHT: Egypt   a Tinderbox Waiting for a Spark

Eric Trager

Eric Trager is the Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is an expert on Egyptian politics and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

  • http://youtu.be/g-GFBEX5bjY Greta

    Antiwar Group Exposes Undercover Activist

    An outspoken member of Harvard Students for Israel went undercover in what he says was a quest to gauge anti-Semitism in a campus anti-war group.
    Members of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice (HIPJ) discovered last week that mysterious anti-Semitic posts on the group’s web log were written by Eric R. Trager ’05, who posted them under an assumed name.

    Trager said yesterday that he was responsible for the posts in question, but said they were part of his larger effort to monitor anti-Semitism on campus.

    Trager, who is secretary of Harvard Students for Israel (HSI), had previously accused HIPJ of being too tolerant of anti-Semitic sentiments expressed over its e-mail lists.

  • Alfredo Ibarra Barajas

    Where are the 65 billion that Mubarak had stashed in Swiss accounts, and the millions he had in jewels. Why the government don’t use them for some benefit or to alleviate the poverty. I’ve seen very sad pictures of poor children wandering in Cairo, while types in the government live in the oppulence It is again like the rich man and Lazarus, children are not deign of the leftovers and are left to die of starvation. Egypt, despite its sophistication, comes across as a country with huge differences. the military men are not compassionate, they only think in power and MB in fundamentalism. there must sure to be another option

  • Ben Ari

    The Egyptian military has the measure of the MB, similar to the past and similar to the Algerian experience. They know the MB must die for them to live. My bet is that the military will live.

  • Skiltz1

    The problem at this point is that it is either Sisi or nothing. The political Left in Egypt suffers from the same maladies and inertia that have plagued the Left in every revolutionary crisis. They are split along pointless sectarian lines, unorganized and only bound together by a very loose coalition – not a unified political party. This is why the revolution, which they started around Tahrir square, was very quickly usurped by the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB pushed the students off and dominated the speaker platforms, used their mosques as gathering places and were directed by experienced political leaders. If the military is to maintain power it had better build some allies in the sectarian camp and then begin a large scale round -up and extermination of MB members. They will have to spill a lot of blood, but if they don’t the MB will do it for them.