x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt's transition in danger of implosion

The violence witnessed in Tahrir Square results from bitter religious division and shoddy post-Mubarak planning. But painful compromises will have to be made to prevent a total eruption. Analysis by Bradley Hope

CAIRO // Nearly two years ago, the uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak saw protesters from across the political spectrum - leftists and Islamists, shop vendors and doctors - fighting in the streets around Tahrir Square against black-clad riot police.

They were unified in their disgust with the pitiful results of 30 years of autocracy: the fruits of economic growth had not filtered down to most Egyptians, freedoms were restricted and political life had been strangled. They won the battle, forcing Mubarak to resign as president.

The scenes in front of the presidential palace over the past several days have shown the extent of the polarisation and breakdown in society since Tahrir's early days, with Islamist groups and protesters against Mubarak's replacement, Mohammed Morsi, clashing in the streets with rocks, Molotov cocktails, fireworks and, in some cases, guns. At least five died and hundreds were injured. The same black-clad police who revolutionaries fought throughout last year and this tried to hold the two sides from killing each other.

The tensions fuelling this fight have been brewing since the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, of which Mr Morsi was once a member, emerged last year as the strongest political power in Egypt. Their dominance shocked liberals, who feared the beginnings of a theocracy.

But the true origin lies in the shoddy transition road map created by the military generals who took power when Mubarak resigned in February last year. Whether that plan, where elections came before the writing of a new constitution, was structured to fail or was simply poorly done is still a mystery. The consequences, however, are clear. The democratic transition is in crisis.

For both the Islamist backers of the president and the loose-knit opposition movement the options are not promising.

Mr Morsi could rescind the declaration he issued last month that gave him sweeping powers without judicial oversight, but risk Egypt's judges ordering a restart of the constitutional process and the dissolution of the upper house of parliament.

The judges could go a step further and order the Muslim Brotherhood illegal. The Brotherhood was a banned organisation under Mubarak and have never officially registered with the proper authorities in Egypt to work as a non-profit group, so some of their opposers have filed cases to declare the group as illegal. If Mr Morsi instead stays the course, Egypt's streets could see escalating clashes that risk the country's stability.

Likewise, the opposition movement is facing two undesirable paths. If they stay on the streets, they risk more deaths of their members and a dangerous escalation of the polarisation of the country. If the constitution is voted through on December 15, Mr Morsi's new powers will expire but they will live under a constitution they vehemently oppose. If it is voted down, Mr Morsi will retain his near dictatorial powers for the foreseeable future.

It will take a tremendous willingness to compromise on both sides to get through this period.


twitterFollow The National on @TheNationalUAE & Bradley Hope on @bradleyhope