While some parts of the Arab world are dividing along sectarian and sometimes ethnic lines, the smouldering unrest in Egypt is entirely ideological. Partisans on both sides view it as an existential struggle to define Egypt’s identity – and all conflicts of this type tend to be bitter and brutal.
Political life is determined entirely by narratives and most elements of politics are entirely subjective. And even when objective realities – economic, geographical, climatic, and so forth – do sometimes assert themselves, the way they are interpreted depends entirely on the perceptual framework within which different groups of people operate.
A minimum level of narrative coherence is necessary for social stability. When the world views of key constituencies in any given society become fundamentally irreconcilable, this can provide a ready basis for protracted unrest and even civil conflict.
The violence currently racking Egypt has taken alarming turns in both the daily routine and the nature and kind of conflict in the country. And the prospects for a stable, orderly constitutionalism – if not fully developed democracy – in Egypt are profoundly undermined by this rapid deterioration.
The violence itself is merely a symptom – and only one of them – of a deepening divide cutting Egyptian society into at least two, if not more, hostile factions that view themselves as exclusively legitimate and the other as entirely illegitimate.
In contrast to the sectarian and ethnic violence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, Egypt is haunted by the spectre of a very different model of nightmarish Arab state disintegration: the ideologically-driven conflict between Islamists and the government in Algeria in the 1990s.
The Egyptian government’s narrative since the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi has been that the military intervened, after overwhelming public demand, to stop the misrule of an out of control party and president who faced no other political checks. From the outset, they accused Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood of having deep ties to Salafist-Jihadist extremists in Sinai.
This account has been significantly strengthened by the evidently furious reaction of the Sinai-based extremists to Mr Morsi’s removal, and their reported offer in the days and weeks immediately following that violence would cease if he were restored to office. With both the government and the Muslim Brotherhood raising the stakes, violence has been spreading throughout Egypt.
From the government’s point of view, there is no real distinction between the actions and policies of the Brotherhood and those of Ansar Beit Al Maqids – which claimed responsibility for the massive bombing of a security headquarters in Mansoura – and other Sinai extremist groups.
Because they are regarded as acting in cahoots, the Brotherhood is assumed to be responsible. And the Brotherhood only encourages this assumption by not simply condemning the attacks but rather blaming them on the government, and even a fictional “Christian militia”.
Many who embrace this narrative, or even most of it, would find last week’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation by the Egyptian government to be both predictable and, perhaps, justifiable, whether or not they view the decision as wise.
The narrative of the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, by contrast, suggests all of this is nothing but excuses for a counter-revolutionary crackdown.
It always anticipated that the military and the rest of the Egyptian establishment would never allow an elected Brotherhood presidency and would find some rationalisation to overthrow it.
Everything that has followed has been interpreted through this framework as a campaign to destroy the Brotherhood jail, persecute and kill its members, and blame it for all kinds of things it has nothing to do with. The Brotherhood worldview predicts such a response to any political success, and its political comfort zone is much more attuned to the underground than the open air.
Indeed, a primary public and rhetorical reaction of the Brotherhood narrative to the removal of Mr Morsi was to predict the virtual inevitability of a violent backlash.
So, in addition to feeling framed and persecuted, this narrative also allows its adherents to feel vindicated in their prediction of mounting chaos. So far, a sizeable majority of socially active Egyptians still seem to be leaning towards the government narrative, even as some elements of the Brotherhood narrative are spreading even into some “liberal” and “revolutionary” constituencies that do not and never will like any Islamists.
Politically engaged Egyptian society appears divided between a larger group that adheres to some version of the government narrative, and a smaller but substantial one – such as the students recently protesting at Al Azhar University – who seem to embrace the Brotherhood’s perspective.
As Egyptians increasingly see each other not as fellow Egyptians but rather as “terrorists” versus “counter-revolutionaries,” the potential increases for a prolonged and widespread social and political crisis that pervades every aspect of society. And the prospects for the minimum shared narratives needed for political functionality, and law and order, fade.
Egypt is neither about to become the next Algeria, nor is it yet entering its own “year of living dangerously”. But the elements for intensified and prolonged civil strife are clearly growing, as its society is experiencing a breakdown in a minimal shared belief about what “Egypt” is, and what it means to be “Egyptian”.