AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/Reuters /Landov
Supporters of the deposed Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, carry an injured demonstrator who was shot during clashes in Ramses Square in Cairo on Friday. Dozens were killed nationwide in escalating violence.
For two years, the conversation on Egypt centered on how to build a democracy. Suddenly the discussion has turned much darker, with some wondering aloud whether the largest Arab nation is hurtling toward civil war.
The bloody crackdown by Egypt's security forces has raised the specter of a protracted conflict pitting the military against the Muslim Brotherhood, the country's most powerful political force.
Egypt's escalating crisis is far too volatile for any declarative statements, analysts say. But here are three possible scenarios that could play out:
1. Reconciliation. The military has been the dominant institution in Egypt for six decades while the Muslim Brotherhood has survived bans, crackdowns and restrictions throughout its history, which stretches back to 1928.
Neither can destroy the other, and there's a broad consensus that both have to have a significant role if the country is to regain its stability. However, the current political timetable, which calls for new elections early next year, seems highly implausible right now.
A more modest goal would be to negotiate some sort of power-sharing arrangement, but even that looks like a major challenge in the short term, given the combustible atmosphere.
"I think it's going to be extremely difficult now to try to turn back the clock to get either the military, which is now committed to a coercive path, or the Muslim Brotherhood, which feels as though all their fears and mistrust of the military are justified, to contemplate a political compromise," Tamara Wittes, who runs the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, told NPR's Morning Edition.
Such pessimism is running high, though some believe the current confrontation could run its course, followed by reconciliation.
Vidino Lorenzo, with the Center for Security Studies in Zurich, and author of The New Muslim Brotherhood in the West, thinks that with "pressure from the outside, the crackdown will not be too bloody."
International influence could "potentially lay the groundwork for some kind of reconciliation," he adds, though the United States, Europe and other Arab states have all kept their distance so far.
2. Military Rule. The military can very likely maintain its grip, but there's little likelihood the country will be stable, let alone prosperous, as long as the generals are effectively calling the shots.
"Egypt has already returned to military rule," says Robin Wright, a Middle East scholar with the Woodrow Wilson Center and the U.S. Institute of Peace. "The question is will they dig in. The military is thumbing its nose at the U.S., its most important ally. It seems hellbent on pursuing its own agenda."
Many Egyptians who were highly critical of the military during longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak's tenure have supported the military takeover, seeing it as preferable to rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it's not clear how long this support might last.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who was serving as vice president in the interim government, resigned this week in protest over the heavy-handed approach.
"A year ago, Egyptians were on the streets calling for an end to military rule," notes Wright. "The military will have to deliver on a number of fronts, including the economic front. Yet the military can't make huge progress anytime soon, particularly in an unstable environment."
3. Civil War. The Arab uprisings have spawned multiple conflicts. Syria is locked in a brutal civil war. Libya had an intense, if relatively brief war in 2011. Yemen still smolders with a persistent, low-level conflict.
Will Egypt join their ranks?
The Egyptian violence has escalated sharply following the military's ouster of Morsi on July 3. Wednesday's crackdown by the security forces left more than 600 dead, the bloodiest day of internal fighting in the country's modern history. While centered in Cairo, the unrest has spread to cities and towns up and down the Nile.
All these developments point to the rapidly deteriorating conditions. However, most analysts cite several reasons that Egypt does not appear headed for a full-fledged civil war at this point.
The military has an overwhelming firepower advantage and it would be difficult for the Muslim Brotherhood or any other group to put together a force that could threaten this superiority.
In addition, the Egyptian population is not considered heavily armed. Islamist extremists did carry out major attacks in the 1990s, which ranged from attempts to assassinate Mubarak to a mass shooting that killed more than 60 people at a major tourist site. But Mubarak waged a harsh crackdown and eventually put an end to the violence.
"There is the danger of sporadic, even regular civil strife," says Wright. "But Egypt at this stage, and I emphasize at this stage, doesn't look like it's going to crumble into the kind of civil war we saw in Algeria [in the 1990s] or Syria today."