Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptians are expected to take to the streets of Cairo and other major cities on Sunday to demand that President Mohamed Morsi , elected exactly one year ago, stand down and make way for some form of transitional government. Hundreds of thousands more, many though not all supporters of the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, are likely to mount counter-demonstrations, urging President Morsi to carry on regardless. Given the passions aroused on all sides, and the uncompromising, maximalist nature of the opposition’s agenda, the scene is thus set for a physical confrontation of possibly epic proportions. Outbreaks of deadly violence have already been reported. Religious leaders have warned of “civil war”. The fear is that these clashes may presage, and precipitate, a more general, anarchic breakdown.
Nothing could be more contrary to Egypt’s national interest, nor more disastrous for the cause of “bread, freedom, social justice” – the 2011 revolution’s rallying cry. Nothing could please more the bloodied criminals of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime, justly disowned by Egypt’s leadership. Nothing might encourage more the pernicious, anti-democratic regional conspiracies of Iran’s clerical conservatives, nor more dismay aspiring democrats from Libya to Bahrain. For Egypt, this proud nation, seat of an ancient civilization and current home to 85 million people, has long been regarded, rightly, as the natural leader of the Arab world. When Egyptians rose irresistibly to overthrow the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, they made that nebulous concept, the Arab spring, an inspirational reality for oppressed peoples everywhere (and not only Arabs). If Egypt were now to collapse into disordered bedlam, the implications for the region as a whole, and for that shared hope of liberation, would be dismaying.
All the talk in Egypt is of a “second revolution” to continue or finish the business of the first. But the danger is that in seeking to perfect or redirect the transformation they so gloriously initiated, Egyptians, caught up in a storm of dissent degenerating into outright violence, may lose what gains they have made, and be swept backwards, against the tide of history, into the blind alleys of grim authoritarianism, repression and enforced silence. What was won may be forfeited. What may follow could be much, much worse.
Speaking for the army last week, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned of a “dark tunnel” ahead, and urged the rival factions to seek consensus. This time around, the military, which tipped the scale against Mubarak but whose virtual independence is now fortified by President Morsi’s constitutional guarantees, appears not to want to play so pivotal a role. But General Sisi was clear that if the nation itself were threatened, he would not hesitate. The outcome of another military takeover might not be as relatively benign, nor as short-lived, as in 2011. The prospect is greatly to be discouraged, despite the ill-judged nods and winks of secular opposition leaders such as Mohamed ElBaradei. Yet nor is it the case, despite the floods of scornful rhetoric from all sides, that General Sisi’s “consensus” is impossible. If they would only pause and take a breath, Egyptians might find they all agree, vehemently, on one unifying principle: they want the best for their country. The only question, though complex, is how to achieve it while remaining true to the ideals of the revolution.
It is certainly true that President Morsi has made, on the whole, a poor fist of the job gingerly handed to him, with much misgiving, and a scraped 51% of the final tally in last year’s elections. The imperative of avoiding a violent implosion is not an argument, far less a justification, for his continued rule. The president has failed to build the inclusive administration he promised, with both Copts and women among the disappointed constituencies. He pushed through a constitution that was too indulgent by far of the military, and too Islamist in character for the comfort of Egypt’s secular or non-religious peoples. He has attacked, or has seemed to attack, the judiciary and independent media. He has failed to rein in a sometimes brutal police force, which utterly disgraced itself in Port Said in January. And has made some woeful appointments, not least the short-lived governor of Luxor, a former jihadi linked to the extremist group that in 1997 murdered scores of westerners in that famous tourist destination.
Responding to his critics, the president has become more and more Mubarak-like, preferring to discern conspiracies by “enemies of Egypt” than address the substance of their arguments. In these misjudgments he has been abetted by the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems unable to manage the transition from outlawed pressure group to governing authority. Despite the muddle-headed, meddling support for him from the Obama administration, President Morsi’s resignation would not necessarily deal a fatal blow to Egypt’s youthful democracy. Outside the US, prime ministers and presidents resign every day and call new elections if they feel they have lost the public confidence. Depending what happens today and in the ensuing days, President Morsi may feel this is the honorable and responsible course.
But President Morsi’s defenestration, fresh elections, a transitional government of technocrats, a revised constitution and all the other mooted “second revolution” reforms conjured by his critics depend, crucially, on similarly honorable and responsible behavior by the disparate opposition forces. This, so far, has often been lacking. Old regime diehards, rightwing nationalists, liberal secularists, purist revolutionaries and the hardline Salafis who outflank the Muslim Brotherhood appear to agree on little but their disdain for the president. Should the current Tamarod (rebellion) campaign succeed in removing him, it is entirely unclear how any interim civilian authority might be constituted or proceed. That is not to say the attempt should not be made, if people want it. But the mass of the people, for the most part, perforce remain more fundamentally preoccupied, on a day-to-day basis, with Egypt’s escalating economic crisis. Rocketing food prices, fuel shortages, lack of jobs and educational opportunity, falling government reserves and credit, and all the ills that accompany increasing poverty present pressing problems to which the opposition, like President Morsi, lack ready and credible answers. Yet this, undoubtedly, is Egypt’s most urgent existential challenge.
In this larger, chronically unstable context, the desirability of reaching a consensus on the way ahead that engages all the various factions as well as President Morsi and the Brotherhood, of an historic national compromise however messy and unsatisfactory, of a collective effort to pull, prod and coax the country into the next stage of its post-revolution development, seems undeniable. Egypt, literally, cannot afford to fight. The Arab world awaits its choice. The Arab spring, that fragile growth, awaits its example. The revolution’s mantra, “bread, freedom, social justice”, must be honored. But bread comes first.
Source: The Observer