Much has changed in the nearly two and a half years since Egyptians took to the streets to topple the thirty-year regime of Hosni Mubarak. Much has also remained the same – or gotten worse. These observations go doubly for the one year since Mohammad Morsi became Egypt’s first freely elected president. No one expected the years following Mubarak’s fall to be a cakewalk, yet the virtual security vacuum across the country, the plummeting Egyptian pound, and hour-long queues at gas stations are pushing the country to the brink.
Amid this turmoil, a grass roots campaign – “tamarod” or “rebel” – emerged demanding that President Morsi resign and call early elections. Having collected an unverifiable 15 million signatures in support of their cause, the tamarod movement, which has garnered the backing of most non-Islamist opposition groups, now turns to – what else? – street protests in the hopes of actualizing their demands. And so, this Sunday, June 30th, mass rallies are planned across the country with the stated goal of ousting the current regime.
How did we get here and where are we headed? Even full-time Egyptian analysts, activists and observers have a tough time giving a straight answer to these questions, but here’s a rough outline of key issues to be mindful of:
Nearly Everyone in Egypt is Either Angry, Disheartened, or Depressed
If you’re not a hardcore backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, you’re likely quite frustrated with Egypt’s current state of affairs. As a recent Pew Research poll indicated, Egyptians are by and large dissatisfied with the way things are and the direction the country is going. This is especially so with regard to the economy, which has been in tatters since the 2011 uprising as foreign investment has dried up and tourism dollars have faded. While such hardships may be expected in the aftermath of a regime overthrow, other seemingly reconcilable grievances are also mounting – most prominently, the build up of garbage on already unkempt streets and nightly burnings of trash heaps that add to an already suffocating level of air pollution.
That virtually every Egyptian has by now felt the brunt of the country’s malaise sets the present impasse apart from previous political showdowns. Whereas before a vocal youth contingent and cadre of political (mostly secular) elites were at the forefront of anti-government demonstrations, the current movement draws on a wide cross-section of the disaffected Egyptian populace. The narrative this time is no longer based on lofty ideals or divisive ideologies, but is rather focused on a more fundamental charge that the current government has been derelict in its duties and, therefore, is no longer legitimate. This more basic appeal speaks to a much broader audience, many of whom are experiencing great hardship, who have pledged to get off the sidelines and join in the frontlines.
There are Valid Points and Notable Deficiencies on Both Sides of this Divide
The current political climate is replete with zero-sum thinking. Nearly every article written on the present crisis has highlighted the growing divisiveness across Egypt. This milieu has already led to outbreaks of sectarian and political violence. Claims of “You are either with us, or you are against us” have gained a lot of cache among both pro-government and anti-government partisans. The latter see Morsi and the Brotherhood as incompetent and engineering a slow-motion authoritarian power grab, while the former considers itself under attack by secular usurpers bitter from multiple electoral losses. As always, the reality is far more nuanced.
With regard to Morsi and the Brotherhood, it is clear that expectations were a bit inflated and faulting the current regime for all of Egypt’s ills is simply not reasonable. The frequent power outages are a result of a poor power grid whose problems were well documented under the Mubarak regime; the falling value of the Egyptian Pound was clearly going to be one of the immediate by-products of Mubarak’s overthrow and is arguably owed just as much to instability caused by constant street protests as any decision/indecision on the part of Morsi; and asserting control over the wide state security apparatus was going to be no easy task for whoever was in power. Indeed, much of the anti-Morsi, anti-Brotherhood rhetoric seems to hardly consider what portion of Egypt’s current problems are directly owed to the actions of those in power and what portion can be attributed to decades of corruption and mismanagement. This is to say nothing of the fact that Morsi is working without a complete Parliament after the lower house was dissolved by a court ruling that many felt was politically motivated.
All that said, Morsi’s tenure has thus far been rife with failures. For instance, there is the flat-out lying: from the Brotherhood fielding a candidate in the first place after publicly stating that it would not, to ignoring their pledge to nominate a woman or Coptic Christian as vice president, to reneging on their commitment to build an inclusive, consensus government. On this last point, some apologists have claimed that it is the president’s right to fill the cabinet with whomever he deems fit. That is true enough, but when you are the first administration to take power after a popular revolution, it seems prudent (if not just plain decent) to aim for a broad coalition rather than recklessly wield the club of majoritarian rule. What is even more frustrating is that despite being surrounded by his supporters, Morsi has nonetheless taken to passing the buck rather than owning up to his failings. Even if some of the current problems are not his fault, they are all nevertheless the president’s responsibility and he simply has not seemed up to the task of meeting these challenges.
Thus, there are certainly legitimate grievances that the opposition can rightfully point to – though their path is no less tarnished. Fundamentally, what the tamarod movement is calling for is unconstitutional and extra-democratic. They claim this is the only option remaining to counteract the Brotherhood’s authoritarian tendencies. In effect, then, they seek to undermine the democratic process because they are afraid that the democratic process will be undermined. If that was not self-defeating enough, they are doing nothing to curb this appearance of mob rule by, for example, calling instead for Morsi to put his presidency to referendum, which would actually be a constitutionally valid mechanism for his removal. Instead, what the opposition/tamarod (they are virtually indistinguishable at this stage) has offered is a vague plan for transition that involves the president of the Supreme Constitutional Court taking over executive affairs for a term of six months until new elections are held. Therefore, an opposition that has thus far offered few alternatives and has constantly been at one another’s throats will all of sudden coalesce and make nice with an Islamist bloc that was forced out of their freely elected position in office, all while the country stabilizes and “revolutionary” goals are finally realized. Undergirding this magical thinking is a similarly fanciful notion that “things cannot get any worse.” They surely can.
The Four Scenarios to Watch for in the Coming Days
1) Mass protests cripple the country and exert too much pressure for Morsi to remain in office, so he concedes to tamarod‘s call for early elections.
This, to be blunt, is a pipe dream. Even those in the opposition camp realize this. The Brotherhood is simply too entrenched and will not be keen to give up their power unless forced to do so. Who will force them, you ask?
2) Demonstrations not only impede everyday life, but usher in a wave of violence between pro-government and anti-government groups that forces the military to take control of the state – effectively, a coup.
Any honest supporter of tamarod realizes that this is their only shot at “success” – another round of military rule that ousts Morsi but does not necessarily follow the opposition’s “plan,” such as it is. What is more, violence is a key factor for this scenario to come to fruition. It is distressing how many protesters are sanguine toward -if not supportive of- violence toward their fellow citizen to reach their goal. Hardly any seem to be objectively considering the ramifications of this outcome, not least of which is the terrible precedent it would set. What if, down the line, an Islamist bloc garnered large scale support and sought to overthrow a freely elected president that did not meet their social vision? I wonder, would they, too, be regarded as “revolutionary” and “democratic” by those who are now demanding Morsi’s overthrow?
The likelihood of these events playing out is perhaps not as high as some in the protest movement would like to believe. The military may indeed not be in Morsi’s pocket, but they are still keen to maintain stability and legitimate rule. Thus, if things get really bad, Morsi’s ace in the hole is to call for a referendum on his presidency. This may not appease his die-hard opponents, but it would certainly placate the “silent majority” that, while dissatisfied, would not want to see the country descend into utter chaos. Moreover, Morsi’s opponents would be outright admitting that they could not defeat him electorally if they would refuse such an olive branch.
3) Protesters lose a battle of attrition against oppressive heat and the start of Ramadan.
One of the reasons that #Jan25 was ultimately successful is that it was not #June25. Temperatures in Cairo are already regularly exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There is certainly enough anger and resentment to bring people out in full force this weekend, but how long can these potentially large numbers be sustained – especially when protesters are not only braving the elements, but their religious obligation to fast, too? Still, it is hard to believe that after all this build-up that demonstrators would simply go gently into that good night and leave the status quo be.
4) Morsi offers meaningful concessions and everyone soldiers on toward parliamentary elections later this year.
This is perhaps the most hopeful outcome. If Morsi is humble enough to, for example, revamp the constitution and make meaningful changes to his cabinet, and the opposition is smart enough to accept, then Egypt can continue on it’s democratic transition, bruised but not beaten. Morsi will get a shot in the arm, the opposition will have greater say in the country’s trajectory, and all parties have their chance to appeal to the electorate ahead of parliamentary elections, which could shift power away from Islamists in a democratically sound fashion.
Hope springs eternal, but I unfortunately do not see things shaping up in this fashion.
Egypt is in a precarious position. The already weak state took a severe blow in early 2011 and another shock to the system of that magnitude could be crippling. At the same time, things cannot go on as they have been over the past year. Something has got to give, but what it will be, to what degree, and to whose political benefit is anyone’s guess.
Between the Brotherhood’s arrogance and the opposition’s naiveté, the prospects for an orderly resolution are unfortunately slim. Morsi has shown time and again that it is his base that he is most concerned with and sees no need to appeal to the large segments of the population that do not buy into his political ideology. At the same time, the opposition has been so politically inept to the point that it is still unclear, even given all the troubles that Egypt is going through, what the alternative to Morsi and Brotherhood rule would even be. A leaderless revolution is all well and good, but “revolutionaries” need to realize that legitimacy does not reside in the street, but in democratic institutions that are populated by elected representatives.
Egypt deserves so much better. This is a real staring-into-the-abyss moment. It is time for both sides to grow up.