JUST a few weeks ago Egypt was firmly on the road to recovery. President Muhammad Mursi had carved a name for himself as a pragmatic statesman internationally while his one-time opponents were beginning to grudgingly accept that he had a pair of safe hands faithfully representing the interests of Islamists, secularists and moderates alike. The economy was inching forward and even the poorest were patiently awaiting its fruits. That happy state of affairs was dissipated by a tsunami that shook the nation to its core, turning neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend. Why did Egypt’s first-ever democratically-elected leader choose to rock the boat with a power-grab that could sink the nation?
There are two opposing interpretations of the president’s motives. The Islamist camp trusts his explanation. He merely wanted to adhere to revolutionary principles and move his country forward but was frustrated by judicial rulings that had delegitimized Parliament’s lower house and feared that the judiciary was about to scupper the efforts of an Islamist-dominated constitutional panel tasked with drafting a new constitution.
Liberals don’t buy that. They believe he harbors an agenda to turn Egypt into an Islamist state and is taking instructions from the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide; they suspect he’s garnered the blessing of the White House, implicit in the Gaza ceasefire deal he brokered. Individuals on both sides are prepared to give him the benefit of doubt in the belief Mursi’s inexperience at governance prompted his over-reach. Whatever the truth, indulging in the blame game will get Egyptians nowhere.
The one thing that everyone can agree upon is that Mursi’s edicts (rescinded on Saturday night) affording him more power than any of his predecessors, sliced the country in two, igniting bloody street battles that resulted in six deaths and over 400 injuries. His power grab, albeit temporary, has galvanized disparate opposition leaders, parties and activists to come together under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front headed by former presidential candidates Mohammed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh and Ayman Nour, several of whom are currently being investigated for an alleged seditious attempt to overthrow the government. The arrest of any one of them would be a grave mistake thrusting Egypt into even greater turmoil; that would be the final nail in the coffin of the country’s democratic aspirations. No democracy can flourish when the opposition is gagged by the specter of imprisonment.
It’s difficult to imagine that just last month, President Mursi boasted that, unlike Mubarak, he didn’t fear his people. He didn’t need armored cars, bullet proof vests and could comfortably stroll amongst crowds, whereas today he works in a palace ringed by Republican Guard tanks, armored personnel carriers, barbed wire and a hastily constructed wall made of concrete blocks. The inability or the unwillingness of the Interior Ministry to control the legions protesting a draft constitution they fear could be interpreted down the road to erode personal freedoms and rights, opens the door to Marshall Law. A statement from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) urged both sides to settle their differences through dialogue, or else face “a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe.” In the meantime, officers of the Armed Forces assigned to maintain security and protect vital state institutions are to be granted “powers of arrest and detention” under an impending presidential decree. On Sunday, F16 fighter jets deafened residents by flying low over the capital Cairo which some suggest was the military’s way of announcing “We’re here!”
President Mursi’s earlier self-satisfied expression has been replaced with one of deep concern. I suspect that if he could turn back the clock on his decisions, he would, but now he’s stuck with Dec. 15 as the date of a national referendum on the draft constitution. He has wisely compromised on one of the opposition’s demands; they can no more refer to him as “a dictator.” But ElBaradei and Co. are in no mood to back down on their demand for the referendum to be cancelled allowing for a new constituent committee to be formed; one that is finely balanced between Islamists and liberals. And to reinforce their point, they have called for a new round of ‘Million Man’ marches starting today.
Apart from Aboul-Fotouh and Ayman Nour, no leader of the National Salvation Front responded to the president’s invitation to meet and discuss on Saturday. According to Mursi’s representatives interviewed on Arabic channels, no option is off the table, everything is open to negotiation. However, ElBaradei, Amr Moussa and Sabahi have vowed there will be no talks until the referendum is officially banned. The president’s men have termed this condition unreasonable. If the nation votes no to the constitution, then the entire process will begin anew, they maintain. On the surface, that sounds fair but is it?
The problem from the liberal perspective is this: The Brotherhood has organizational structures enabling it to mobilize its base, facilitated by thousands of buses and oiled with cash and food inducements. The opposition does not accept the legitimacy of the draft document, hurriedly finalized during a 16-hour all-night session when Mursi had given the panel two extra months to do its job, nor the rush to get it approved by the people. The National Salvation Front says it will boycott the vote “because it does not represent the Egyptian people.”
Mursi could put a stop to this downward spiral towards a military takeover or, in the worst case scenario, civil war, by cancelling the Dec. 15 referendum and discussing the way forward with opposition figures. But he’s got himself into a real bind as he must not only placate those against him but also his own Islamist supporters who rail against the President making concessions to people they call remnants of the Mubarak regime or, worse, infidels. Indeed, Mursi did national unity no favors by blaming foreign powers, thugs and terrorists for the upheaval, echoing the stance of Mubarak and Syria’s Al-Assad; especially when those in Tahrir Square are known to be a mix of students, intellectuals, businessmen, professionals, shopkeepers, blue-collar workers and fellaheen.
There’s no getting away from it. The president broke it and now he must fix it. But that doesn’t relieve the opposition from its duty to behave responsibly. Hard line positions will produce nothing but more blood in the street, more anger and hatred — and instead of two opposing visions of Egypt’s future, everyone's hopes and dreams will be irreparably shattered.