By Joe Young
Egypt is on the road to civil war, even if policy makers don’t like the term. Scholars have argued about it, but most agree that civil war is a form of political violence where a state and at least one group of non-state actors engage in killings that exceed some threshold, usually 1,000 people.1 There was a debate circa 2004-2006 over what to call the violent events in Iraq. Most scholars, appealing to the definition above, claimed that it was a civil war. In hindsight, they were right.
Why does civil war begin? Some of the most cited (read important) scholarly works on civil war used mainly structural variables to explain its onset. We learned that places with poverty, mountains, and large populations are most prone to this toxic violence. These studies2 help us understand where civil war is likely to occur but shed little light on when it will happen.3 These works motivated my own large-scale (read dissertation) project on civil war.4 I argued that states where insecure leaders faced with domestic mobilization respond with repression5 are the places (and times) we should see civil war. This is built on a fairly pedestrian, but overlooked and important necessary condition: For civil war to occur, there must be joint production of violence by the state and non-state actors. In short, we need to know why people are mobilizing against the state and why the state is killing those people. Mountains, lots of people, and poverty is not enough.
In Egypt, we have an insecure and tenuous leadership faced with a counter claim to state control.6 The current leadership has begun the process of civil war by killing Morsi supporters en masse. Research on social movements and violence suggests the state’s choices vis-à-vis dissidents can influence whether the opposition responds with violence.7
Reports here and here suggest that the Morsi supporters are turning to violence in response, but not yet in the same proportion. Extremists, who don’t necessarily support Morsi but see a political opportunity, have moved to violence in some cases.
Jay Ulfelder suggests that what is happening in Egypt is Mass Killing. But the next move by the Brotherhood and other disaffected Egyptians is important. If they choose nonviolence when confronted with repression, they may be more likely to win this struggle.8 If the opposition chooses violence over nonviolent resistance in the coming days and weeks, this process will continue ultimately leading to deaths beyond the threshold that most consider the onset of civil war. If this occurs in Egypt like it did in Syria or Iraq, the human costs and the impacts on international security will be tremendous.
1 See Sambanis 2004 for an excellent overview of the problems and solutions to this defining the concept.
3 See a working paper by Davenport, Lichbach, and Armstrong that makes a related series of critiques of the structural approach to modeling civil war.
4 See one of the published chapters here: Young 2012.
5 See our own Christian Davenport’s Annual Review of Political Science article for an excellent overview of what we know and don’t know about state repression.
6 The contest can be over the whole state, a piece, or some major policy.