08/20/2013 01:01 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Egypt: The Third Phase of the Arab Revolutions

What is happening in Egypt today is the third phase of the "Arab revolutions."

In late December 2010, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia made it possible first of all to overthrow the authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

This then led to a second phase in Tunisia and Egypt, with the first free elections won by the Muslim Brotherhood and their affiliates, which were the most consistent organized force and benefited from an aura of martyrdom, because of their repression by the fallen dictatorships.

Today, after a year or more in power, there has been a reaction against the Muslim Brotherhood, caused both by their incompetence in governing and by the projects their opponents have attributed to them: to infiltrate states in order to take them over permanently, tactics comparable to those of the Nazis in Germany in 1933 and the Communists in Czechoslovakia in 1948. This is the third phase.

The Shiite-Sunni "clash of civilizations"

But we must remember that there were three other Arab revolutions that followed different paths. And that was due to the extreme proximity of the countries where they took place to what constitutes the most important international issue in the Arab world: the ability to export daily a quarter of the oil consumed on the planet.

• Bahrain, where the revolution was aborted one month after it broke out on 14 March 2011, with the intervention of the forces of the Gulf Cooperation Council, led by Saudi Arabia - on the grounds that since the population of Bahrain is predominantly Shiite, a victorious revolution would turn the country into Iran's step stool.

• In Yemen, southern neighbor of Saudi Arabia, with its population of 25 million people in a state of absolute poverty and representing a major security risk for oil producers. The Yemeni revolution was in fact stifled by petrodollars and the game of tribal division.

• Finally, the Syrian revolution resulted in civil war. Besides pitting civil society against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, it opposes the Sunni majority of the population against a coalition of minorities (Alawites, Christians, Druze, Kurds, etc., as well as some Sunni) around a fault line that crosses the Middle East and of which Syria has become the epicenter.

This is the Shiite-Sunni "clash of civilizations" opposing on the one hand a "Shiite crescent" led by Tehran and supported by Maliki's Iraq, Assad's Syria, the Hezbollah and the Shiite populations on the Arab side of the Gulf. On the other side, a Sunni front, whose principal leaders were Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt. But today, with the explosion of Egypt, the largest Sunni country in the Middle East with over 90 million inhabitants, the Sunni bloc itself is deeply split. On the side of the Egyptian interim government - which took power after mass protests on 30 June by ousting the elected president of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, on 3 July - and its strongman General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, there is Saudi Arabia; the king himself, a very rare occurrence, made a public statement in support of the Egyptian army "in its fight against terrorism."

There are also the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan. In the other camp with the Muslim Brotherhood, we find the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, very much in the forefront in the defense of his fellow Islamists in Cairo; and Qatar, which was, in the time of the former Emir, the Brotherhood's main sponsor in Syria, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere, and gave the movement its main media platform by putting the TV channel Al Jazeera at the service of its conquest of power. Qatar's support remains real for structural reasons, but today it is less explicit since the new Emir, Sheikh Tamim, took power. The position of his father, who was sponsoring both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club, Muslim associations in the French suburbs and the most radical Syrian Islamists, had created an untenable situation internationally for Qatar, a small country that is certainly wealthy but has only 200,000 citizens and cannot afford to make enemies.

Two Egypts

What is happening today in Egypt is completely incredible to people like me, who know the country or have lived there for decades. We have always tended to think that beyond its social differences, or religious differences between Copts and Muslims, Egypt had unity, its own "personality". Cohesion and homogeneity in its population, which made it impossible for a "Levantine" scenario to take place, as in Syria, and also seen in Lebanon and Iraq, plunged into religiously- or ethnically-based civil wars in the 1970s. We were convinced that the unity of Egypt prevailed. But what unfolded in the course of Morsi's presidency revealed an unfathomable gap between two Egypts. The one that supported the Muslim Brotherhood, and the one hostile to it.

This phenomenon had never occurred previously. Indeed, Morsi himself had managed to obtain a majority of votes by a narrow margin in the presidential election of June 2012. With his usual electorate, joined by the votes of many pro-democracy citizens and of definitely non-Islamist revolutionaries who nonetheless preferred Morsi's beard to a military uniform - after 16 months of transition, between Hosni Mubarak's departure and the election of Morsi, during which the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) had orchestrated with great brutality the repression of the secular opposition and of the Copts, who were protesting because television was not reporting the burning of churches by Salafists. Thus, in Egypt, we saw the slogan "The army and the people are one hand", intoned after the fall of Mubarak, transformed into "Down with the power of the military" in 2012. Morsi would not take into consideration this composite dimension of the electorate; he gave the impression, to those who elected him out of hatred for the military, that the Brotherhood of which he was only one of the wheels - the "spare tire" as he was known in Egypt during the election campaign - would infiltrate the state and capture it forever. In so doing, Morsi and his brothers caused half of Egypt to rise up against them, and crystallized their discontent; we cannot know at present if this represents a majority or not, but in any case, by taking to the streets on 30 June, it showed that the country was now cut in half.

Now, faced with Morsi's fall, the Muslim Brotherhood - which has existed since 1928, has spent much of its existence underground, and has built a counter-society deeply embedded in the Egyptian social fabric, sometimes under the benevolent eye of regimes like Anwar Sadat's, who relied on it to fight the left - also has the power to cause major obstruction. Today the two opposing halves of Egypt are able to block each other; what is to be feared is that neither will be able to impose its will in this situation of polarization, in which the army has not hesitated to use its weapons, during a week in which probably a thousand people were killed. There is every reason to think the armed groups that developed on the sidelines of the Brotherhood will reappear, an eventuality that contains the seeds of civil war. It must also be remembered that modern Egypt, Nasser's Egypt, was built in 1954 through the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood; its main leaders were sent to the scaffold, others to prison, and those who could fled into exile. It was in Nasser's jails, in fact, that the Brotherhood's most extreme ideologue Sayyid Qutb, executed in 1966, wrote the "How to" of radical Islam, "Milestones".

Towards a civil war?

Jean Marcou is right to emphasize that Egypt is not Syria. I am nonetheless very struck by what I hear being said, or written, in Arabic on both sides in Egypt today. There is a violence in statements that I had only heard before, since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, in Syria. Unlike Syria, where religious and ethnic fuel feeds the civil war, the battle in Egypt is more a sort of Kulturkampf , with the Islamists on one side and those who are hostile to them on the other. And thus Egypt is the paroxysmal point of an existential conflict over the future of Arab societies and religion's place within them, which is also found today in Libya, Tunisia and Turkey.

This is what explains the virulence of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who is himself a descendant of the Muslim Brotherhood line. In addition to bringing help to his Egyptian brothers, he is also reacting to the challenges he has encountered in his own country, where pro-democracy partisans and Turkish laity who voted for the AKP out of hatred for a Kemalist army, considered fascist today, now fear that Erdogan will become an Islamic dictator, as demonstrated by the major protests organized in June in Taksim Square. In Tunisia, where the Ennahda party is a partner in a coalition with non-Islamists and where antagonism is less well-defined than in Egypt, there have been successive assassinations of secular figures by radical Salafists, such as lawyer Chokri Belaid and, on 25 July, Mohamed Brahmi, leftist member of the National Assembly from Sidi Bouzid, birthplace of the Arab revolutions. (The main suspect is a French-Tunisian born and raised in the 19th arrondissement of Paris.) These killings also indicate that this cultural clash is part of the third phase of the Arab revolutions. It poses fundamental questions about their future.

The decision to use force to dislodge the Morsi supporters occupying two sites in Cairo was taken after the failure of international mediation, initiated primarily by the United States. As far as we know, General al-Sisi, Minister of Defense, Chief of Staff and strongman of the interim government, despite the fact that his army receives $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid, decided that the destruction of the Brotherhood represented an existential issue. He was encouraged by the fact that the petro-monarchies opposed to the Brotherhood (Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in particular) gave Egypt, right after July 3, $12 billion, nearly 10 times the U.S. aid, to crush the Muslim Brotherhood. Saudis and Emiratis also perceive them as a dire threat. What is very striking here, even more than in Syria, a country traditionally under Russian influence, is that in Egypt, which after Jimmy Carter and the Camp David accords became the main U.S. ally in the Middle East along with Israel, there is a sense that the United States (as well as the European Union and France, if indeed they still exist in the region), with their messy politics, no longer have a single friend in Egypt. The Egyptian government has rejected Obama's criticism of the repression. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they accuse a "Crusaders/Zionists" conspiracy of being the hidden hand causing them to be shot at.