In the wake of Sunday's clashes in Cairo that left 24 dead and some 200 wounded, Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf wasted no time hinting at the culprit. "What's happening is not sectarian tension," he said. "There are hidden hands involved and we will not leave them."
Translation from the Absurdic: It's a Zio-American plot. If only that were true.
What is true is that Egypt is in the early stages of Thomas Hobbes's bellum omnium contra omnes, the war of all against all. Gone is Mr. Sharaf's narrative, a popular staple when Hosni Mubarak was still in power, of a united Egyptian nation undercut by the sinister meddling of outside forces. Gone as well is the Arab Spring narrative of tech-savvy, pro-democracy protesters standing tall and proud against the dinosaur Mubarak regime. Gone even is the narrative of the liberal secularists versus the Muslim Brotherhood.
Instead, picture Egypt as a vacant lot in which a dozen or so combustible elements—a leaking oil can here; some dry wood over there; patches of desiccated grass—sit in varying degrees of proximity to one another, while the boys who play in the lot light cigarettes. Chances are, something will catch fire. Chances are that if something does, all of it will.
Consider what happened on Sunday. A Coptic group called the Maspero Youth Union—an outspoken movement with an uneasy relationship with the Coptic religious establishment—had decided to march on the headquarters of Egyptian state television, partly in protest of a mob attack (unhindered and possibly abetted by local authorities) on a church in Aswan, but also against the army for conspicuously failing to protect Coptic interests since the revolution.
What followed were a series of escalations: stones thrown between the protesters and Muslim onlookers; the army's use of tear gas and armored vehicles to disperse—and run over—the protesters; an allegation, made by a presenter on state TV, that the protesters had attacked the soldiers; another allegation, made on a Muslim religious channel, that the protesters had burned a Quran, leading in turn to an attempted attack on Cairo's historic Coptic hospital.
Meanwhile, Cairo buzzes with word that soldiers have deliberately disobeyed the instructions of their officers by opening fire on the Copts. A clip on YouTube now making the rounds has one soldier boasting that he "shot a Copt in the chest." For that, a man in the crowd approvingly replies, "By God you are a man!"
Taken together, the sequence of events captures the broader collapse of authority throughout Egypt. Timid regional officials who will not stand up to Islamist mobs. Furious Coptic youth who no longer accept the cautious dictation of their elders. Conscript soldiers not afraid to disobey their orders. A "free" media that traffics in incitement—including a bogus claim from the Arab News Agency that Hillary Clinton called for U.S. troops to be deployed to Egypt to protect the Copts.
And that's not the half of it. The Sinai is becoming another version of Yemen, an ungovernable staging ground for terrorism and sabotage. The economy has registered two consecutive quarters of sharply negative growth. Army chieftain Mohamad Hussein Tantawi, supposedly the guarantor of Egypt's international commitments, only came to the rescue of the besieged Israeli Embassy after a direct appeal from President Obama. The so-called democratic coalition that seeks to win seats in upcoming parliamentary elections consists of 27 separate parties—plus the Muslim Brotherhood. There are estimates that 100,000 Copts have fled Egypt since the February revolution; the number is probably exaggerated, but the trend line is clear.
"Will the Middle East be emptied of its Christians, like the earlier pogroms emptied the Middle East of its Jews?" asks Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian Copt and research fellow at the Hudson Institute. "Iraq had 1.5 million Christians; they could be absorbed by other countries. But how will the world deal with eight million Copts?"
The answer is that they won't. The overwhelming majority of Copts do not have easy exit options and will have to fend, and fight, for themselves in a country that despises their faith, envies their wealth, and suspects their allegiance. It's a recipe for repression and murder on a mass scale. But even then it's only one of Egypt's several unfolding tragedies. What happens if the Brotherhood opts for a trial of strength against the army? Alternatively, what happens if the Brotherhood attempts to co-opt the army so they can turn their combined power on everyone else?
Egypt today is in need of a savior in the mold of Muhammad Ali Pasha, its first great modernizer. But the nearer historical precedent is an opportunistic officer in the mold of Gamal Abdel Nasser—or a religious messianist like Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini. Either possibility would be a calamity for the Middle East, and for the United States. But Egyptians will think otherwise when confronted by the specter of anarchy. Just ask Thomas Hobbes.