The latest bloodshed in Cairo underscores worrying trends about Egypt's internal security and political future. The recent clashes in the vicinity of Cairo’s Abbasseya Square illuminate prominent political groups' ability to forcefully impose their views, demands, and ideologies as they battle for the country’s new identity. Sadly for Egyptians, the bloody volatility is not likely to end anytime soon.
From a security point of view, what is most important to note is how the explosive political situation directly translates into an erosion of security conditions on the ground. Violence in downtown Cairo is often centered on political disputes involving opposing factions prone to resolving their differences with force. They consider this the most optimum course of action to achieve their goals.
While protests and scuffles are daily occurrences in the post-Mubarak Egypt, more violent and deadly skirmishes are relatively less frequent. These now happen every few months. If one examines the violence over the last year, it is evident that many of the clashes were politically motivated or involved politically oriented factions fighting for the supremacy of their respective agendas.
In August, security forces stormed and cleared out Tahrir Square. In October, demonstrators clashed with military police outside the Maspero building in Cairo, killing some 25 people. In November, security forces and an influx of protesters clashed in Tahrir Square, and some 23 people were killed. Also, clashes between rival football clubs – and political rivals - killed some 79 people in early February.
This was followed by an escalation in protests in front of the Ministry of Interior in Cairo, which led to five-days of stone-throwing skirmishes in the streets surrounding the government building.
In a majority of these cases, it was liberal protesters— not Islamists— who battled with security personnel. The killing of 14 people on May 2 in Abbasseya was merely the latest incident in a string of violent clashes unlikely to subside anytime soon. As opposed to previous cases of unrest, this was the first time that "unidentified men," loyal to the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), attacked a group of mainly Salafi-Islamists who had been protesting the disqualification of their presidential hopeful, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail.
This is likely the first indication that the secularly-oriented military is gearing up for the true battle for Egypt: the one with radical Islamists.
Military supporters, angry with Salafist intentions and their apathy towards Egypt's military rulers, most likely attacked their Islamist rivals as a show of strength and to force the abandonment of the ongoing protests in front of the Ministry of Defense. No less worrying, however, is the fact that their opponents are also not timid when it comes to escalating the violence.
With that in mind, both SCAF and the Salafis are merely supporting actors in Egypt’s larger picture. The most dominant force in the struggle for the identity of post-revolutionary Egypt remains the Muslim Brotherhood. Their predominance is noted by all parties, who are all seeking to pry them into their own ideological spheres. The Salafis, mainly the al-Noor party, are vying to pull the Brotherhood into adopting a more hard-line Islamist approach, while the military, in addition to leftist and liberal parties strive to bring the party to a more moderate and less ideological platform.
Unfortunately for the West and those hoping for a pluralist Egypt, the Brotherhood will likely give little consideration to the liberal groups, given their marginal status in the Egyptian political system. The radical Salafis on the other hand, are likely to have greater successes, and the military, too, has not yet said its final word.
Under these circumstances, protests are likely to continue in the coming weeks, especially ahead of the elections for the republic’s presidency. The elections will signal an end to the first stage of the transitional period following Mubarak’s ouster, but by no means are Egypt's troubles over. The country has been ruled by a handful of dictators since its independence from Great Britain in the first half of the 20th century, and the mind-set of enforcing political opinions upon others shows little sign of disappearing.
For this reason, even after elections are over, violence may still be used to influence rivals, settle disputes, and impose political prowess. The outcome of such fighting holds a gloomy future for a country which not long ago was the leader of the Arab world.
The writers are Intelligence Analysts with Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm based in the Middle East