Austin Bay

Egyptians boast that they possess the world's longest continuously recorded history. Among scholars, the boast spurs lively debate.

In 2011, as Egypt's Arab Spring revolt began, to encourage unified political action, secular and Islamist revolutionary leaders touted the global significance of Egyptian history. As to the precise global significance? Save that chat for later.

Later has arrived, but as a civil war, not a chat. The boast has emerged as a boundary marker underlining an essential divide separating nationalists of all stripes from hardcore political Islamists in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

The scholastic gripes involve less deadly disagreement. Egyptian writing appeared some 5,300 years ago, but the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia's Sumerian city states predates Egypt's hieroglyphs. However, in 2013, Egypt exists. Though Al Sumaria is a popular Iraqi television station, Sumer's city-states are archeological digs or names on stone tablets.

"Continuous" history depends on definition. Egyptian dynasties rose and fell. Is foreign rule discontinuity? Alexander the Great of Macedonia became pharaoh in 332 B.C. Muhammad Ali, Egypt's Khedive from 1805 to 1849, was Albanian. But no matter the ruler, Egyptians never disappeared.

Do gaps in the record break continuity? Scribes typically used pharaonic reigns to chronicle events, and episodes of war and violent civil conflict interrupt scribal accounts. Wars kill scribes and destroy libraries. However, the Nile River continued to flow. Egyptians kept fishing and farming. New scribes always started scribbling again.

Last week's Cairo clashes left at least 650 dead and 4,000 injured. Six hundred fifty dead is not a civil disturbance. Several firefights between police and Muslim Brotherhood resistance cells looked like platoon engagements. The conflict is a civil war, albeit a slow one.

The Obama administration refuses to call the military-led toppling of Muslim Brotherhood politician and elected president Mohammed Morsi a coup. Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, Egypt's defense minister and armed forces commander, used military forces to seize political power. Since the coup, Sissi has added deputy prime minister to his portfolio. It was a coup.

The Washington Post sent scribe Lally Weymouth to Egypt. In early August, before the military fought the Brotherhood in Cairo, Weymouth interviewed Sissi. Sissi contended that if the military had not acted in July, a civil war was certain. The Brotherhood has argued the coup ignited a civil war. I think the coup revealed the civil war's existence, before the Brotherhood acquired unaccountable and unchallengeable power. Time will tell.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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