x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Protests will only deepen Egypt's dangerous divisions

Mohammed Morsi over-reached so badly that he has divided Egypt, and however Sunday's protests play out, the crisis will not abate.

No matter what happens after today's protests in Egypt, the crisis is already more substantial than the one that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak's government in January 2011.

In the past few years, food and fuel prices have soared, unemployment has risen sharply, the crime rate has tripled and the last year alone has seen almost 9,500 demonstrations and protests nationwide.

A dangerous divide now exists in the country. Most citizens have lost confidence in the government, fearing that it is using unconstitutional means to consolidate its grip on power. The rhetoric used by both sides has intensified, at times reaching dangerous levels of incitement.

President Mohammed Morsi has a serious legitimacy problem, but he and his party have not taken steps towards national reconciliation. Instead, they have assaulted their opponents and many institutions of civil society.

The opposition political groupings, though representing a large number of Egyptians, are too new and too weak to compete with the well-established Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian military, the most respected institution in the country, is in a quandary. Top officers have clearly feared that today's protests could escalate into violence and mass disruptions, but they appear hesitant to squander the public's trust by forceful action. Instead, the army has called on both government and protesters to engage in a national dialogue.

The US, meanwhile, has badly misjudged the situation. To many Egyptians, the US has appeared to side with Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, turning a blind eye to the public's deep discontent.

No matter what happens today - how many thousands of protesters turn up, how much violence the demonstrations entail, how active the army becomes - it is clear that the country is badly divided.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its political party remain Egypt's best organised and most disciplined political grouping. But the opposition, though not yet an electoral force, is motivated by the real fears and grievances of a substantial majority and is a reality that cannot be ignored.

After its electoral successes the Muslim Brotherhood wasted a golden opportunity to be magnanimous. After winning parliamentary elections, they should have reached out early on to include all of their opponents in a national dialogue. And they should not have broken their promise to sit out the presidential election.

After winning that office, they should have realised that they had to secure the trust of those they had defeated. Further, they should also have ensured that a broad cross-section of Egyptian society was involved in the drafting of the new constitution, so that all Egyptians would feel that they had an equal say in shaping the future of their country.

The Muslim Brotherhood did none of this. Instead, after winning, they quickly began to overreach. They used an unrepresentative body stacked with their own supporters to write the constitution. They worked to consolidate their hold on power, declaring the president to be above judicial review and attacking the judiciary, the press and non-governmental organisations.

In the process, they have alienated many Egyptians who have recoiled from what they see as the president's intention to establish an authoritarian Islamic regime.

Mr Morsi's opponents, though numerous, have not yet coalesced into one political force with broadly recognised and credible leadership. Lacking in organisation and structure they have not been able to win elections and are fearful that before they develop that capacity, the Muslim Brotherhood will have irreversibly established authority over all of the state's institutions.

Feeling powerless to make change through democratic processes, the opposition has felt they have no recourse but to demonstrate.

Through all of this unrest the president has not only appeared unmoved but has become hardened in his resolve to move forward without changing course.

The result of this clash is the situation today in the streets of Egypt's cities.

In the lead-up to this day of reckoning, Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Egypt, delivered an address that was taken by many Egyptians as chiding the demonstrators for not respecting the legitimacy of the government.

That may or may not have been the intention of Ambassador Patterson, but by giving short shrift to Egyptian concerns that the Morsi government was undercutting the foundations of civil society and a democratic order, and by not condemning the many practices of the government that have eroded public trust in the future of a participatory democracy, she put the US in the uncomfortable position of being on one side (and in fact the minority side) of a deeply divided polity in a country that is important to the US, as to the region.

When the dust settles tonight - or later - the consequences of the day's events will start to become clear. Whatever those may prove to be, Egypt will still be divided, will still be facing enormous economic challenges and will still be in need of a thorough national dialogue that can chart a new course for the country.

Whether the military can or will be the agent that facilitates this process is uncertain. But, at this point, that appears to be the best that can be hoped for.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa