Egypt Conflict Alert
4 Feb 2013
It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi’s and the Muslim Brotherhood’s serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president’s cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition’s lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state’s integrity.
Since President Mubarak’s ouster, the level of violence has ebbed and flowed, yet each new wave brings the country closer to tipping point. Already, some police officers, beleaguered by attacks on their headquarters, are considering removing their uniforms and going home; there is talk of brewing discontent among Central Security Forces, the riot control police; and criminal gangs along with looters profit from the chaos. There are new shocking images of police brutality. Many young Egyptians increasingly appear disillusioned with electoral politics, and some are drawn to anarchical violence.
The situation is made worse by deteriorating economic conditions. As foreign currency reserves decline, the government finds it ever more difficult to prop up the Egypt's pound or maintain fuel and food subsidies. One should not be surprised to see larger segments of the population joining in socio-economic riots. By current trends, Egypt could find itself in a vicious cycle of economic under-performance and political instability, the one fuelling the other.
At first glance, the immediate trigger of the current crisis might appear to be entirely local. The violence that claimed the lives of dozens in Port Said began as a reaction to death sentences for 21 soccer fans charged with killing a rival team’s fans. Yet, the events are symptomatic of a larger trend — erosion of respect for governing institutions. In the Suez Canal Zone and the Nile Delta, protestors have violently targeted administrative buildings, symbols of an authority viewed as removed, arbitrary and impotent. The collapse of the police and increased porosity of borders with Libya and Sudan, thus a marked increase in the illegal trafficking of light arms, further enable street violence.
Overshadowing this is a broader political context: a persistent, perilous standoff between on one side the president and his Islamist backers for whom elections appear to mean everything, and, on the other, opposition forces for whom they seem to mean nothing; between those in power who deny adversaries respect and those not in power who deny Islamists legitimacy. The constitution-writing process was a sad microcosm: Islamist contempt in forcing through what ought to have been a carefully constructed, consensual document; opposition recklessness in seeking to exploit the moment to topple the Brotherhood; one celebrating a narrow conception of majority rule, the other holding to a counter-productive notion of street politics.
In the absence of a shared view of the foundations of a future political system, Islamists are pressing their vision, while their opponents play spoilers. This has the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more the opposition obstructs and calls for Morsi's ouster, the more it validates the Islamists' conviction it will never recognise their right to govern; the more the Brotherhood charges ahead, the more it confirms the others' belief of its monopolistic designs over power. Even if leaders back away from the brink, this could quickly get out of hand, as their ability to control the rank and file — and, in the case of the opposition, ability to represent the rank and file — dwindles.
Reversing these dynamics requires efforts on two fronts. Politically, the key is mutual acceptance of two realities: that the Brotherhood's electoral victories give their rule legitimacy, but that a historic, complex transition in a challenging security and economic context requires exercise of power to be tempered by meaningful consensus-building.
Several steps would help: an end to opposition calls for the president to step down and agreement by Morsi that the constitution, whose adoption was marred by boycotts and low voter turn-out, ought to be revised to allay the apprehensions of non-Islamists and notably the Coptic community. Likewise, the process for designing the elections law — another topic of sharp disagreement, especially on district boundaries and the representation of women — should be revisited to reflect broader agreement among factions. Finally, after parliamentary elections are held, parties should form a coalition government, a result that would serve both the Muslim Brotherhood (which would gain from the opposition becoming a responsible stakeholder) and the opposition (which would be better positioned to impede what it views as efforts to institute single party rule).
The National Dialogue the president proposes is a possible forum. It should build upon the 31 January Azhar memorandum in which all sides disavowed violence and promised serious discussion; its agenda — to find a way to amend the constitution and set the legal framework for legislative elections — needs to be clearly defined in advance; participation should be expanded to include representatives of youth activists and protesters. Parties should commit that, for decisions requiring legislative action, their future elected legislators would vote consistent with understandings reached in the dialogue.
The second set of challenges relates to the security environment. Security sector reform broadly construed — including mechanisms to ensure accountability and justice for victims of police brutality; training in crowd control; but also measures to restore law and order — needs to be tackled, and soon.
The alternative could well be a downward spiral toward greater insecurity, violence, social unrest and economic collapse. It also could be failure of a transition to which all eyes are turned and whose fate would reverberate far beyond its boundaries.