The desperate opposition groups in Egypt are dragging the country into a new crisis even before it has emerged from the previous one, which appears to be endless. It’s varying degrees of severity depend on internal opportunities or external pressures. As a result, Egypt is now wedged firmly between an opposition that will accept nothing less than the ousting of the democratically-elected President and seizing control without a popular mandate; Arab forces that are doing everything possible to sink the country into a state of chaos and paralysis; and security agencies in a state of turmoil.
The latest flare-up is the public reaction in Port Said to the harsh sentence given to football fans found guilty of very serious crimes during a riot at a match last year. Although some reaction was expected from both the victims’ supporters and the friends and families of the accused, the protests turned the streets of Port Said into a battlefield. Armed groups even tried to storm the city’s prison and release its inmates. It is unusual for Egyptians to protest so violently against the sentences handed down in criminal cases. However, with the rising political tension and encouragement for the violence, the opposition groups have exploited their dominance in the media to call for a coup. In fact, the demonstrations on the anniversary of the January 25th Revolution were used to provide cover for outlaw gangs and anarchists, who made the judicial rulings another excuse to escalate civil disturbances.
Ever since 22 November last year, the day of the constitutional referendum, the opposition leaders in Egypt have refused the president’s invitations for dialogue; instead, they have questioned his legitimacy. Indeed, protestors have gone so far as to try to storm the presidential palace.
President Morsi’s aim with the controversial referendum was to accelerate the transitional process and protect the Constituent Assembly from political schemes dressed in judicial garb from disrupting its work. As for the opposition, its goal was to throw the transitional process into a state of uncertainty, present a constitutional draft, and wait for the opportune moment to overthrow the president. While the opposition failed to achieve its goal, the president succeeded in protecting the Constituent Assembly from dissolution until it expedited the constitutional referendum. Despite the hostile media campaign against the draft constitution, Egyptians voted with a large majority to approve it.
Things did not end there, though. The country could have embarked on its journey toward stability and focus its attention on its pressing financial and economic affairs, as well as its busy foreign policy agenda. Neither the opposition nor the Arab countries that interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs wanted to give the government and, by extension, the country, a chance. Hence, on the eve of the revolution’s second anniversary, the crisis grew in intensity.
The opposition realised the weakness and fragility of its popularity. Every time the public have been asked to give their opinion since the overthrow of the previous regime, the so-called liberal forces have failed to achieve convincing popular support for their candidates or opinions. The failure of the opposition to overthrow the president or convince a sceptical public of its case is pushing it increasingly towards violence and the use of illegal means to validate its presence. This is what happened during the anniversary demonstrations.
All the opposition forces combined (made up of 13 parties under what is known as the National Salvation Front) were unable to gather more than 200,000 supporters in all the cities in which protests took place, including Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square. In Cairo the protests were turned into attacks on the Ministry of Interior and attempts to disrupt a meeting of the Shura Council. Similarly, in other cities protests became attacks on local government headquarters, prisons and private property. The opposition could have condemned the violence, but didn’t; they couldn’t, as they know that violence appears to be only option available for it to bring down the legitimate government.
Of course the main actors in the crisis not only include the ambitious and frustrated leaders of the opposition but also a number of Arab and regional countries which share the Egyptian opposition’s distaste for the rise of Islamic political forces in Egypt and other Middle Eastern states. They have concerns over the Egyptian president’s clear position on the Syrian crisis, and the likelihood of Cairo turning towards Ankara to form an alliance with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party.
Some Arab countries are concerned that the rise of political Islam in Egypt is an indication of the widening influence of the Islamic movements, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, in the region as a whole, as well as the Islamic political trends supporting the forces of revolution and change. Moreover, because Washington seems unable to influence the course of events in Egypt, certain Arab allies of the US are losing confidence in their American ally and the immunity their alliance provides from democratic change.
There is also concern over what the current situation will mean in terms of Egypt’s Arab and regional role, especially after President Morsi made clear during the election campaign that he was determined to re-consider his country’s foreign policy. Some Arab states have become accustomed to Egypt’s absence from regional activity and the resultant inflation of their own importance. With the rise of Islamic political groups which has led to Egypt returning to centre stage, it is in such Arab states’ interests to destabilise Egypt and keep it preoccupied with internal problems.
The position of the Egyptian security services also has to be considered. They are supposed to protect the legitimacy of the government and put an end to the chaos and insecurity caused by a relatively small group of professional and political thugs. The problem is that Egypt is not a naturally revolutionary state. It has actually made little progress since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime. State institutions are neither revolutionary nor particularly loyal to the president or the revolutionary forces. They were, more or less, established more than two centuries ago. Their vision and relationships with the people are based on the view that the Islamic political movement is a foreign and hostile force. This, however, does not mean that the establishment is conspiring against the president and supporting those who call for his overthrow. Legitimate power is no joking matter, nor can it be ignored. In reality, the country is following the orders of the president and is acting as if it is waiting for the result of the conflict. It is not taking sides with the president and his supporters until it can see clearly that the president has ended the conflict in his favour.
The Islamic movement, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, is very popular all over the country but it lacks real power and influence within the state institutions. Since the outbreak of the crisis, the Islamic groups have kept their supporters off the streets and avoided violent confrontation with opposition supporters and the violent gangs for which the opposition provides cover. No one knows how long this self-discipline can last, or if the Islamists will continue their support for the president’s approach to the crisis, which is based on calls for dialogue and asking the security services to tackle the unrest.
The actions taken by Morsi in the three Suez Canal municipalities, including a temporary state of emergency, an evening curfew and the deployment of military forces, reflects the general mood of the people, who wanted the president to take a firm stand to regain security, stability and order. Nevertheless, Morsi’s critics included those who wanted him to take a stand just as firm in Cairo, particularly in the centre of the city.
It is not certain, even with the deployment of the military, that the government will be able to control the situation in the Canal municipalities. Moreover, unless a pluralistic democratic system emerges, the Egyptian capital will remain hostage to the opposition forces and its determined efforts to overthrow the president.
The handful of ambitious politicians in the opposition leadership should realise that overthrowing an elected president means that the country will be unstable for decades to come and no president of any political hue will ever be able to hold his position for any length of time. Sadly, such an obvious fact appears to be beyond their comprehension, perhaps deliberately so. The statement made by the opposition early on January 26th was closer to a call for a coup than the usual clash between a government and its political opponents. The same rhetoric was used in a new statement made on January 28th, in which the opposition rejected the invitation by the president for national dialogue. So what is the way out of this apparent impasse?
No democratic system can develop on shaky ground festooned with polarising and intense power struggles. A democratic system requires a consensus on the state’s foundation in advance, as well as on national identity and an understanding of its paramount interests. Egypt has not reached this point yet. With the collapse of the country’s financial and economic capacities and the dwindling hope of ending the nonstop crisis, Egypt is in dire need of a solution, and soon.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.