x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Morsi's salvation is a government of national consensus

Egypt is slowly moving towards a train-wreck. It can still be saved if President Morsi intervenes.

Mohammed Morsi raised hopes when he took office. But that sentiment soon turned into disappointment. EPA
Mohammed Morsi raised hopes when he took office. But that sentiment soon turned into disappointment. EPA

Egypt got lucky, they said. Public order has not taken too much of a dive, they said. Egypt is too big to fail, they said. This transition is going to work out soon, they said.

They said wrong. There is still a way for the country to get out of the imminent train-wreck - but only one man can do it.

Egypt did get lucky, it has to be said. When the most recent round of verdicts in the Port Said football massacre case were delivered earlier this month, there were fears that football fans would again go on a rampage. The leaders of Al Ahly football club, however, decided to generally accept the decision, which did send some police officers to jail.

There was no violence comparable to what happened after the last round of court decisions, when a mob tried to break the convicted men out of detention.

Since the recent ruling there have been clashes near Tahrir Square, causing traffic mayhem, but the protesters have been few, and not constitutionally a political force. However, clashes near the Muslim Brotherhood's headquarters have produced more violence - and in a way that does not bode well for the future.

Still, there has not been wide-scale violence. Egypt is not Somalia, but it is also not Switzerland. A breakdown of public order has not taken place, but Egypt's public institutions have been weakened. As they become weaker, and unable to deal with the stress that a restless public will put upon them as the economy worsens, they will begin to buckle - and Egypt could enter into a very different phase of its transition.

The military council, Scaf, has been uninterested in state reform and restructuring. The military exists as a state within the state, and it is functioning quite nicely.

When Mohammed Morsi took office, it was hoped the first civilian president of Egypt in the modern period would take such things seriously. But Mr Morsi disappointed greatly. Rather than replace the "pillar of fear" that underpinned Hosni Mubarak's regime with something more sustainable, the institution of the presidency has engaged in fights with other institutions - and they are all weaker as a result.

Mr Morsi's ongoing fight with the judiciary - including moves such as trying to unilaterally dismiss the prosecutor general (eventually succeeding, and putting in place a figure who is regarded as close to the Brotherhood), temporarily suspending the judges' powers through the November constitutional declaration, and colliding over the elections law - has done nothing to increase public confidence in either institution.

Across the state's structures, the president's own example has contributed to an environment where citizens see that institutions are not to be respected, and where they can force their way past them, they should. That is a lesson they also learnt from the moves made by Muslim Brotherhood members outside the presidential palace in December, when they violently broke up a peaceful protest.

Were the president able to sort out the economy, this would probably have far less meaning. However, he has not shown the acumen to do that. Economic management is not getting any better and, as the weeks go on, the economy worsens. There is some aid and micro financial support from foreign governments, but that is for specific projects. On the macro level, international assistance is not about to come in the amounts needed - because few presently believe that the Morsi government is able enough to deal with the political and economic challenges.

That leaves the Brotherhood in an interesting situation: they are convinced that the world will not allow Egypt to fail and, because of that, they can continue to move as they please. Foreign governments, of course, view this as a type of blackmail. But all of this may become moot rather soon. If the situation becomes more and more unstable in economic terms, the political unrest could turn to social upheaval. At that point, against their own desires, but driven by public disorder and outcry, Scaf may choose to intervene directly in Egyptian politics - once again.

If that happens, two things are fairly certain: the overwhelming majority of the country will stand by the military (which has immense popular support), and the supporters of President Morsi will not take it lying down, in a country that is now far more armed at the ground level than it ever has been.

If the events of last Friday have shown anything, though, it is that it will not only be the supporters of Mr Morsi who may engage in violence. The attacks outside the presidential palace in December showed the non-Islamist opposition that the Brotherhood would be willing to engage in low-level, but essentially vigilante, violence. While the leaders and more scrupulous members of the opposition will choose not to stoop to the same level, one cannot assume that all anti-Brotherhood activists will do the same. They may consider, wrongly, that it is justifiable to fight vigilante violence with more of the same.

In short, Egypt is slowly moving towards a train wreck. But it does not need to happen that way. There is a way out of this, which would protect the results of the ballot box that brought Mr Morsi to power, and which could set the country onto an economic recovery with political stability. It is a way that would keep the army out of political life, but would require all sides of the political spectrum to engage in a revolutionary, transitional political dynamic in a national salvation government of consensus.

There is one man who is truly able to put that into motion. His name is Mohammed Morsi. He is the president of Egypt - and his opportunity to begin the second Egyptian republic is now.


Dr HA Hellyer is a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution based in Cairo

On Twitter: @hahellyer