EGYPTIAN STATE media, international news organisations and Islamist opposition sources offer widely different estimates of the number of pro-Muslim Brotherhood protesters killed on the streets of Cairo on Wednesday.
The basic fact remains, however, that the Egyptian military, which dominates the new government following last month’s anti-Muslim Brotherhood coup, believes it can return to a state-of-emergency two-and-a-half years after the uprising that brought the now deposed President Morsi to power.
Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi would not have deployed hundreds of troops and armoured bulldozers against Brotherhood supporters if he had not believed, after his talks with western leaders in recent weeks, that he could get away with it.
For all their professed support of the democratic process, the Americans and Europeans see the Egyptian secular military leadership currently fighting Al-Qaeda in Sinai as an ally. As much as they may regret the bloodshed in Egypt’s cities, Western leaders regard the generals as a known quantity with which they believe they can deal.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s quick ascent to power was part of a trend that seemed about to engulf much of the Arab world. And, far from being western-style democrats, its leaders were intent on establishing their own brand of populist autocracy. In Washington, London and other European capitals, military rule for now seems to be the lesser of two evils.
As the number of dead rises in Cairo, dozens have been killed to the east, in Sinai, in a conflict that is getting much less media attention as few western journalists venture into Sinai’s unruly hinterland.
The casualties there have been on both sides: security personnel, Jihadists and a large number of innocent local residents, many of them Christians, targeted by terrorists for no apparent reason.
The Al Qaeda affiliate in Sinai has multiple targets, not only Egypt but also neighbouring Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It views even the Hamas regime in Gaza as not radical enough and, together with Jihadist Palestinian elements, they are trying to subvert it.
Just as it has in other parts of the wider region — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen — Al Qaeda has identified a power vacuum in the lawless peninsula and is trying to exploit it. Last week’s closure of Eilat Airport and this week’s failed missile launch against the town are signs of this.
Israel cannot afford to meddle in Egyptian politics. It needs close co-operation with the generals to fight Al Qaeda, as do Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Western nations have reached the same conclusion.
For now, military rule in Egypt is the only game in town.