With violence sweeping Egypt’s cities and the economy lurching deeper into crisis, each passing day is adding new bricks to a wall of mistrust between the Islamist-led government of President Muhammad Mursi and a fractured secular opposition.
Two years after the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak, Egypt, the epicenter of the upheavals reshaping the Arab world, is once again dicing with its future.
Writing on Twitter this week as protesters clashed with police in the Suez Canal city of Port Said, Ahmed Said of the liberal opposition Free Egyptians Party asked: “Will the army intervene on the side of the Egyptian people or not?”
Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sissi, the army chief and defense minister, duly warned on Tuesday that chaos in the streets and political deadlock could lead to “the collapse of the state”.
For now at least, this looks more like a shot across the bows of Egypt’s bickering politicians than a bid for power, most observers believe. Senior officers told Reuters the army’s main concern was to safeguard national security and contain the violence that has enveloped major cities, including three along the strategically and economically important Suez Canal.
The instability has provoked unease in Western capitals, where officials worry about the direction of a powerful regional player that has a peace deal with Israel. The United States, which gives Egypt $ 1.3 billion in military aid each year, called on Egyptian leaders to make clear violence was not acceptable.
The violence is rooted in popular rage at the failure of Mursi to deliver security, stability, jobs and food and enmeshed with polarized and poorly focused political agendas.
Since the 2011 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, which Mubarak spent his 30-year rule suppressing, has won two referendums, two parliamentary elections and a presidential vote. But, as the renewed turmoil of the past week demonstrates, Egyptians have still to reach anything like consensus on who should govern them, and under what rules.
Power ebbs and flows between a presidency that is beholden to the Brotherhood, a poorly coordinated opposition coalition and the army, the pillar of the old order.
Meanwhile, the Parliament is in abeyance pending new elections and almost nothing has been done to rebuild crucial institutions such as the police and the judiciary.
Mursi added fuel to the flames late last year by taking over legislative powers until a new parliament is elected and rushing through an Islamist-tinged constitution, endorsed in a referendum where the Brotherhood outmaneuvered an opposition that could not decide whether to boycott or contest the vote. The opposition spurned Mursi’s offer of dialogue this week, calling instead for a national unity government and a rewriting of the constitution — in effect, for Mursi to step aside. “I think the lack of trust is so deep-seated that even if the Brotherhood made good faith gestures I don’t know if the opposition could believe them or take them at face value,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“I think in some ways the well is so poisoned we are talking about a very rough transition (ahead) ... There isn’t any way to undo the damage that has been done,” he added.
The impasse has led to fears in some quarters that the army could step in. Arguing against such a move is the fact that the Brotherhood-backed constitution enshrines the military’s political influence and economic interests, meaning army commanders have little to gain by taking over the day to day running of Egypt.
If discontent against Mursi broadens into another popular uprising, the army’s leadership would find itself center stage. “It all depends on how quickly civilians can get organized,” said analyst Safwat Zayaat.
Shortly after his election in June, Mursi managed to sideline the military council that effectively took over after Mubarak. Yet the army had a role this week in convincing the president to impose a month-long state of emergency on three Suez Canal cities, Zayaat said, through the National Defense Council on which commanders sit alongside civilian leaders.
Military analysts say that after six decades in power the US-aligned generals now heading the army have no wish to see their image tarnished by a new putsch, especially since whoever rules Egypt will soon have to take unpopular economic decisions.
A desperately-needed $ 4.8 billion loan from the IMF is not yet in place, mainly because the aid package would involve cuts to subsidies that eat up a quarter of the budget, further stoking food and fuel-price inflation. On the streets, there is no sign of the stability the country badly needs to attract investment, tempt back the tourists who provide around a quarter of all jobs, and create opportunities for its overwhelmingly young population.
Hamid at Brookings doubts a new consensus to restore stability and unlock economic reform is possible in such a combustible climate.
“I think the big thing is going to be the IMF loan to try to stabilize the economic situation. The even bigger thing is the parliamentary elections. It would be a disaster if the opposition boycotts because that would mean the normalization of street politics over institutional politics.” Like most observers, Hamid doubts the protesters will be able to force out a democratically elected president who has only been in power for seven months and has inherited a country that lived under 30 years of autocracy and mismanagement.
“Knowing Mursi, even knowing him personally, he won’t resign under any circumstance and the Brotherhood will never allow that. “I also don’t think it sets a good precedent for elected leaders to resign in the face of popular pressure. That kind of precedent will be detrimental to the institutionalization of politics”, Hamid said.
Opposition conditions for re-entering the political process, furthermore, including holding an early presidential vote and rewriting the constitution, were not realistic, he said.
“You cannot really undo what has already happened. There can be re-negotiations over some controversial articles (of the constitution) but what they are proposing is to start over.”
The mistrust goes deeper than demands by the opposition. Mursi and his Brotherhood affiliates believe the liberal opposition is out to destroy them. They see this as an existential battle and that the opposition is acting outside the democratic rules of the game.