Seeing the horrific images of the Egyptian military's crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo and other cities across the country, it seems that the ongoing political crisis may have passed a critically important and tragic threshold. Where the military government under the leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has claimed, with some justification, to be serving at the will of a majority of Egypt's citizens with the goal of restoring democracy, the events of the past two days have eroded its perceived legitimacy and may instead provide the basis for a violent conflict that could engulf Egypt and influence the trajectory of the larger middle East for years to come.
As the Obama administration's prompt condemnation of the violence and (more importantly) cancellation of joint U.S.-Egyptian military exercises indicate, the sheer level of violence unleashed by the military has fundamentally changed the perception of the crisis. Similarly, the resignation Nobel Peace Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who was appointed by al-Sisi, reflects an outrage and revulsion that will tarnish the regime's image moving forward. Questions of whether the removal of Morsi was a coup d'état are now irrelevant. For Egypt to move forward, it needs international support and investment. While Saudi Arabia (an opponent of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood) has recently announced an economic aid package, it is not enough to underwrite the kinds of structural reforms and programs that are viewed as necessary for sustainable economic development. Already, the regime's actions have been widely condemned in the United Nations and across Europe, critical sources of potential support.
Thus, at a strategic level, the crackdown is short-sighted and almost certainly damaging to Egypt's national interests. Egypt's military is highly professional and one of the few viable institutions within Egyptian society. It is therefore somewhat unfathomable that the closing of the camps and suppression of protests could not have been effectively executed without widespread bloodshed. The violent means which the military regime employed outweigh the ostensible goals of returning Egypt to a sense of normalcy so that political and economic reforms can be developed and implemented. In short, the military's response to the pro-Morsi protesters was completely out of proportion and has now called the legitimacy of the regime into question, potentially isolating it from much of the international community.
However, a larger issue pertains the long-term ramifications of the government's actions within Egypt and throughout the region. While the Muslim Brotherhood had recently made tentative statements about playing a constructive role in a future democratic process, the ouster of Morsi and the arrests of Brotherhood leaders had seemingly galvanized the movement against the regime. However, it was not clear that the larger Islamist movement was prepared to abandon participation in electoral politics. With the events of the past two days, it may be increasingly difficult for regime opponents to see a viable nonviolent political strategy. The calls to violence by radicals and jihadists may therefore resonate more strongly in light of the regime's actions.
None of this is to excuse the provocations by radical jihadists. Reports of Muslim Brotherhood members in the protesters' camps firing on Egyptian soldiers as well as reports of attacks on churches, police stations, hospitals and government buildings, and increasing violence in the Sinai clearly indicates the presence of a violent radical Islamist element seeking to exploit the situation. The Egyptian military leadership may indeed believe that it is facing a fundamental threat to the nation and its future, but at the same time, al-Sisi and his advisors should have known that a heavy handed use of force against protesters would only fuel radical jihadist calls for violent resistance and the seizure of power.
In a region where jihadist forces are already on the march, the Egyptian military government may have made a grave miscalculation. If the crackdown is interpreted as the de facto foreclosure of any representative democratic path for Islamists, the ranks of the violent jihadists may indeed swell and will likely be joined and supported by willing allies from outside of Egypt. For now, it seems imperative for the regime to restore order and (ideally) lay out some concrete path to legitimate civilian democracy. If it fails to do so, Egypt's bloody crackdown of August 14th and 15th may become known as the critical event that precipitated a period of civil and sectarian violence in the nation which may take years to resolve.