x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Demonstrations will test Egypt's democracy

Sunday's protests in Egypt tell the tale of the past year – and how they play out may tell us what will come next.

Mohammed Morsi's first year in office has not been a success. His second year begins Sunday, with what are expected to be large public demonstrations. The protests, and the reasons for them, are measures of the failures of the past year; how violent they prove to be may well serve as a signal for what will come next.

Mr Morsi took office as president of Egypt last June 30 after winning an election that was widely acclaimed as fair. His supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and allied parties hoped he and their lawmakers could usher in a new Egypt. His opponents, in their bewildering diversity of viewpoints and spokesmen, were correspondingly anxious about the changes the fundamentalists might impose. But after decades of dictatorship, Egyptians were united in the hope that a freely elected parliament and president would improve their lives.

The disappointment has been immense. Neophytes to government, ideologically rigid and incapable of democratic compromise, Mr Morsi has stumbled through a series of confrontations, crises and confusions. Essential economic reforms have been delayed or abandoned.

Now, as the whole country braces for trouble, Mr Morsi has made a characteristically inept gesture: a two-and-a-half hour televised address on Wednesday in which he acknowledged some mistakes but offered no meaningful concessions, and scoffed at his opponents.

The Tamarrod (Rebel) protests expected on Sunday, months in the planning, could bring millions into the streets, many of them demanding his resignation. Incidents of deadly violence between supporters and opponents have been almost daily events this week and the nation is tense. Salafist vigilantes say they too will be in the streets on Sunday. Citizens are stockpiling food and withdrawing cash from banks. The army has deployed additional manpower and armour to bases near the cities, and warned Egypt's 82.5 million people against "slipping into a dark tunnel of conflict, internal fighting".

The level of violence on Sunday may reveal what lies ahead. Mr Morsi is increasingly unpopular but was duly elected. If opponents and supporters can find the restraint to keep bloodshed to a minimum, Egypt's democratic future will be shown to be sturdy and promising - and the next elections will be quite interesting. But widespread violence, however it starts, would only weaken the government's fragile legitimacy, encourage further violence from both sides, and tempt the army to sweep democracy away.