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Egypt’s sillhouette of fire

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.


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Tuesday 31 October 2017

Eight people have been killed and at least 11 injured in an "act of terror" after a man drove a pick-up truck onto a path for cyclists in New York city.

The 29-year-old driver of the truck was shot by police in the abdomen and taken into custody after he crashed the truck into a school bus and fled his vehicle, according to New York City Police Commissioner James O'Neill.

Speaking at a press conference, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the attack was "a particularly cowardly act of terror". 

The mayor said: "It's a very painful day in our city. Horrible tragedy on the West Side.

"Let me be clear, based on the information we have at this moment, this was an act of terror and a particularly cowardly act of terror. Aimed at innocent civilians, aimed at people going about their lives who had no idea what was about to hit them.

"We at this moment based on the information we have, we know of eight innocent people who have lost their lives. And over a dozen more injured."

Mr O'Neill said the driver was armed with a paintball gun and a pellet gun.

The driver hit a school bus, injuring two children and two adults on board before exiting the pick-up truck.

The man was shot in the abdomen by a uniformed officer before being taken into custody.

The commissioner said a statement made by the suspect when he exited the vehicle was "consistent" with a terrorist attack.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said there was no evidence to suggest a wider plot or wider scheme.

US President Donald Trump said the attacker was "very sick" and a "deranged person".

British Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted: "Appalled by this cowardly attack, my thoughts are with all affected. Together we will defeat the evil of terrorism. UK stands with #NYC."

A police spokesman posted a photo showing a white pick-up truck on the bike path with its front end mangled and the hood crumpled.

The rented truck had logos of the Home Depot hardware store chain.

Mangled and flattened bicycles littered the bike path, which runs parallel to the West Side Highway on the western edge of Manhattan along the Hudson River.

One witness told reporters at the scene that he heard about five gunshots before seeing a large man being taken into custody.

"He seemed very calm," the witness said. "He was not putting up a fight."

A witness told ABC Channel 7 that he saw a white pick-up truck drive south on the bike path at full speed and hit several people.

A video apparently filmed at the scene and circulated online showed scattered bikes on the bike path and at least two people lying on the ground.

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