Egypt’s Nightmare Scenario Draws Nearer

Obama tries to avert an explosion of violence in the Arab world's most populous country

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Rick Friedman / DPA / Corbis

President Barack Obama makes a statement on the situation in Egypt from the driveway of his vacation house in Chilmark, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., on Aug. 15, 2013

However awful Egypt’s political crisis may appear after the bloody government crackdown that left more than 500 protesters dead, the worst may be yet to come. Islamists enraged by the military-led government’s brutal tactics could retaliate on a scale that touches off an even bloodier phase to the struggle, regional experts say.

“I think a cycle of violence is coming,” says the Century Foundation’s Michael Wahid Hanna. “This will likely take the form of insurgent tactics, including possibly suicide bombings and assassinations.”

And that, in turn, would provoke more harsh tactics by the government. “Further violence will push greater repression and authoritarian behavior,” Hanna adds. “De-escalation, let alone democratic transition, is a long way off.” And all in a country already veering toward potential economic collapse and awash in arms.

(MORE: Cairo Counts Its Dead After Egypt’s Crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood)

The implications for the Middle East, and for American security, are alarming. Turmoil in the region, from Syria to Libya to Iraq, has energized radical Islamists allied with al-Qaeda. Already in Egypt, Islamists in the Sinai peninsula are growing increasingly violent — troubling Israel’s government enough that it staged an apparent drone strike against militants there.

However it might disturb Washington, Egypt’s generals may welcome open conflict with their Islamist rivals. “The [Muslim] Brotherhood has always lost against the Egyptian military,” says Gregory Aftandilian, senior fellow for the Middle East at the Center for National Policy. “So that’s the historical memory of the Egyptian officer corps: ‘Whenever there was a confrontation, we’ve won.’”

The Egyptian military already talks as though it faces an insurgency: on Wednesday it said its crackdown had been a response to “terrorist acts” and a “criminal plan to demolish the pillars of the Egyptian state.” There have been some provocations by Islamists who don’t share the Muslim Brotherhood’s official credo of nonviolence. But the brutality of the military’s response could radicalize even pacifists within the movement.

(PHOTOS: Clashes Erupt in Egypt as Protestors March Against Earlier Bloodshed)

The Obama Administration is desperate to calm the situation — not only in the name of human rights but also, as President Obama noted on Thursday, America’s strategic interest in a stable Egypt. No one in Washington believes a crackdown will lead to stability.

But in the region, that view has powerful adherents. And Abdul Fattah al-Sisi doesn’t care about America’s opinions next to those of his financial benefactors in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. As one Arab official recently told TIME, there’s plenty of support in Riyadh and Dubai for an effort to crush Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood once and for all.

That’s why Obama’s diplomatic efforts might be better directed not at Cairo but at its wealthy allies in the region. “I think it’s the Saudis who have the leverage right now,” says Aftandilian, a former State Department Middle East analyst. That means Obama has to convince the Saudis that a crackdown will lead to instability and violence that could inspire radicals who threaten their own kingdom. “The Saudis fear an [Islamist] backlash. If the U.S. is smart, we can play to that fear,” Aftandilian says, by telling the Saudis, “the longer this instability goes on, there could be ramifications for you guys as well.”

And, by extension, for the U.S.

MORE: Viewpoint: Egyptian ‘Liberals’ Are Out for Blood