Egypt and the Road to Civil War

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.

2 See Fearon and Laitin’s 2003 piece and Collier and Hoeffler’s 2004 work.

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.

7 See Reagan and Norton 2005, Moore 2000, and Lichbach 1987.

8 See Stephan and Chenoweth 2008, Chenoweth and Stephan 2011.

  1. Do you think population density will affect the duration of a hypothetical civil war in Egypt? My own opinion is that an urban civil war, which Egypt’s invariably would be, invariably is finished faster than a rural one, like Syria’s, simply because targets are clustered closer together.

    1. Another key difference between Syria’s civil war and Egypt’s potential one is how — I’m drawing from Erica Chenoweth’s recent piece here — army defections in Syria and Libya militarized each countries’ conflicts. Obviously, in Egypt this dynamic is not going to happen, with clear implications for the MB’s ability to produce violence.

    2. Good question. We need David Cunningham (one of the other contributors to the blog) to comment on this as civil war duration is one of his areas of expertise. My belief is that internal politics for both the regime and the rebels will matter a lot (see Taylor’s point below). Egypt’s military seems more cohesive than Syria’s. If the opposition (maybe Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya), not just the Brotherhood, gets weapons from outside sources, then I think this could be a longer conflict. (See Patrick Regan, Notre Dame, on outside intervention in civil war). If the opposition fractures, some choose violence others do not, some choose terror, others do not, then I think a war would last a good bit longer (again see David Cunningham and some of Barbara Walter’s work here).

  2. I’m very skeptical of calling it a civil war purely on basis of casualties caused by one side. By that logic, any killings caused by one side within a state would be a civil war. Ulfelder’s argument is far more convincing to me.

    Also I’m skeptical of the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to succeed even if they do keep to peaceful protest. The Egyptian military appears to have been solidly united in this and we haven’t seen signs of cracks at the top or in the Egyptian middle class (though admittedly information is hard to come by).

    As an aside, I’m also critical of people who have refrained from calling the violence in Iraq a civil war and additionally critical of people who think that it is over. I don’t know what you could honestly call these ten years besides a civil war, no different from Syria.

  3. Thanks Grant. To be clear, I’m not calling it a civil war yet. Civil war requires violence by both sides beyond a threshold. Yes, right now, Jay is correct that we witnessed a mass killing, but the actions of the Brotherhood and Gama Islamiya and other groups in Egypt will determine what next looks like.

    I too don’t believe that the Brotherhood will ultimately triumph, which I think means rule Egypt long term. Peaceful actions though could ensure that they have a seat at the table for whatever Egypt becomes. Violence from their side, and thus the point of the post, would likely lead to civil war and all that ensues.

    1. Thanks for the clarification. But if the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood does decide to use violence*, absent outside military support can they really hope to last more than a year against the Egyptian military? It was noted in the past by Egyptian militants that the geography wasn’t suited to guerrilla warfare and the fate of urban guerrillas has been long known.

      *And other, more radical groups who may be gaining in credibility among Islamist at the Brotherhood’s expense.

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