CAIRO — It's finally happened: Egypt has fallen off the precipice and into civil war.
On Wednesday morning, police backed by the military and plainclothes supporters violently dispersed sit-ins that were being held by Islamist supporters of the deposed, elected President Mohamed Morsi. Morsi's supporters, wielding everything from rocks to firearms, held their ground, or retreated to the side streets where firefights were still going on by nightfall.
I walked around the sprawling Cairo suburb of Giza on Wednesday, one of the two flashpoints in the fighting. On the way there, the streets and subway stops were eerily quiet. One of the most crowded parts of a notoriously crowded city was virtually empty.
A soon as I walked down the major thoroughfare Arab League Street, I understood why. Gangs of partisan civilians were engaged in running street battles. Pro-Morsi protesters had occupied major squares and thousands of men and women were building barricades and shouting "Allahu Akbar," along with pro-democracy and anti-military slogans. They were clashing in the side streets with anti-Morsi partisans. Sticks, stones, and molotov cocktails were the main weapons I saw, but gunshots, many from automatic weapons, rang out all around.
Some of the pro-Morsi guys welcomed me and insisted I take their pictures as they posed next to burning police trucks and held up AK bullet casings they claimed had been fired at them.
After I slipped away from the pro-Morsi demonstrators, I headed down the side streets controlled by the anti-Morsi faction. The anti-Morsi guys had stopped traffic and were apparently trying to surround the square to attack it again. These men and boys were armed mainly with sticks and knives, but on one corner I saw a group of heavily armed men casually toting shotguns, submachine guns, and what appeared to be a sniper rifle of some sort. A heavily muscled man toting a submachine gun and covered in tattoos told me politely but firmly that I couldn't take pictures and I should get out of there right now.
Hundreds of people have already died. Most of them have been Islamists, but there has been blood spilled on both sides. Two journalists have also been killed, apparently shot by police. Churches across the country have been burned down, apparently by Islamists who ludicrously blame Christians for the military takeover.
The burnt remains of the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)
The showdown between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military, two hierarchical, undemocratic groups, has finally reached a head, and it is ugly. Egyptians in the street and on my Facebook feed have almost all taken sides. The atmosphere is so polarized almost everyone here is minimizing the atrocities of one group and exaggerating those of the other. People on both sides are calling their opponents rats and roaches, using past crimes to justify what sounds like political genocide.
Very few people are asking whether or not this had to happen, whether Egypt couldn't have solved its political disagreements without such massive bloodshed. And there are precious few people questioning whether the Muslim Brotherhood and the military are the only choices for Egypt.
Its hard to predict what will happen in the next few days. But it seems clear that the violence will escalate, and the Islamists will completely end their flirtation with semi-peaceful moderation and burn more churches, form militias, and set off bombs. The military will likely use its superior popular support and overwhelming firepower to eventually crush its Islamist rivals, forcing them back underground.
Despite the fact that the military will probably handily beat the Islamists, it is less likely they will be any better at running this huge, crazy country than Morsi was. I want to be optimistic and trust the generals who now run Egypt. Maybe they will be true to their promises and hold free elections and reform the economy. However, even if the military crushes the Islamists in a month, I predict that many of the people supporting the crackdown now will turn against them once the specter of the Muslim Brotherhood and harsh Islamic law is gone.
The military overthrew Morsi and promised stability first and foremost. They have achieved just the opposite.