Egyptians agree on little in these frightening and unstable times. Still, few would argue with the notion that Monday’s mass killings on the streets of Cairo represent a bloody reminder that the country’s political future is deeply uncertain and that the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi is far from the end of the story.
Morsi’s removal by the military and his replacement by an interim president is unlikely to be reversed, given the overall balance of forces. However, an already polarized atmosphere has been further poisoned by the deaths of more than 50 “martyrs” outside the Republican Guard headquarters in Nasser City.
It may yet be possible to make good on the commitment to a speedy transition to civilian rule — though the army will remain in the background. However, it will not be inclusive. National reconciliation — mentioned by many in Egypt and abroad — sounds like a good idea, but it will be a very tall order.
The complexity of Egypt’s story means that nomenclature struggles to keep up with the sheer pace of events. Until last week, government supporters were Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition were a coalition of revolutionary activists, old regime loyalists, a ragbag of independents and a mass of ordinary Egyptians yearning for stability. Now their roles are reversed.
On a day of dark news the only flicker of light was that the interim presidency had quickly ordered a judicial investigation into what happened in Nasser City in the early hours. Its findings, though, may not sway people from their entrenched positions. And experience suggests that the army, keener on its privileges than accountability, will not willingly let civilians pry into its affairs.
The Brotherhood’s outrage at the killings was matched by widespread cynicism about its behavior and motives. Large numbers of Egyptians see the Islamists as masters of manipulation.
“The Muslim Brotherhood have cheated Egyptian public opinion for the past two years,” said Mounir Abdelnour, a leader of the National Salvation Front. “Finally we have seen their true — and ugly — face.”
State TV reflects that unambiguous view, giving only the government’s side of the story that “terrorists” tried to storm the building where Morsi is rumored to be held. Al-Jazeera TV is vilified by many because it is perceived as favoring the Brotherhood narrative.
“In the short term, the Muslim Brothers [MB] may benefit from the pictures of supporters covered in blood,” the veteran analyst Magdi Abdel Hadi said. “This may gain them some sympathy, but mainly abroad. Many Egyptians blame the leaders of the MB for incitement to violence and accuse them of wanting to ignite a civil war.”
The immediate consequences were grimly clear. The conservative Salafi Nour party immediately withdrew from talks on forming a new government. So did Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, an independent Islamist. The Brotherhood had already made clear it would not take part until Morsi was back in office.
“The Brotherhood understands that it is unlikely to be able to restore the Morsi presidency and is thus trying to create a situation in which the military cannot impose a new political order,” the strategic consultancy Stratfor said.
Another risk is that with senior MB leaders in jail, more radical elements may set the tone. Jihadi groups are already active in Sinai — a priority for the military.
The likelihood then, Egyptian commentators and politicians say, is that the new government will be formed without any Islamists at all, meaning that hopes of national reconciliation have been dashed, at least for some time to come.
Talk of the country becoming another Algeria (where violence erupted in 1991 after elections Islamists were poised to win were canceled), or even Syria, now in the grip of a fully fledged war, is overstated. However, between calm and escalation, most Egyptians would probably bet on escalation.
“If violence continues, the army may see no alternative but to impose emergency or martial law,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a Wafd party MP.
Timing may be on the side of short-term calm as the month-long Muslim Ramadan holiday begins this week. However, heat, fasting and anger can be a volatile as well as an exhausting combination.
Ian Black is the Guardian’s Middle East editor.