15 February 2013

Egypt: Towards Stable Democracy in Egypt


Since the tumultuous events that toppled Hosni Mubarak's three decades rule in Egypt, its citizens seem to find one reason or another to return to the streets in protest. The latest round was sparked off when activists wanted to mark the second anniversary of the revolution by protesting against President Mohammed Morsi, who they accused of 'riding roughshod' over Egypt's new-found democracy. Efforts by the police to disperse the crowd led to deadly clashes with the protesters in Cairo and Alexandria. In Ismailia, some of the protesters set fire to the offices of the ruling Justice and Development Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Another cause for the renewed protests was the death sentence on 21 football fans standing trial for last year's bloody fracas in Port Said that left 74 people dead. Anger over the court verdict turned violent in Port Said, and quickly spread to Suez City. The Morsi government moved to curtail the violence by imposing a state of emergency in the affected areas, a measure that appeared to worsen the situation.

Egyptians have had reasons to re-occupy the iconic Tahrir Square several times since Mubarak's ouster in January 2011. The frequency with which they seem eager to protest clearly shows a yawning gap between their expectations and the policies of the government. The restless youths, who spearheaded the revolution and bore the brunt of the regime's crackdown, are impatient to see actual change in their daily lives come quickly, a change from the joblessness and poor living standards that had been their lots for decades.

On the other hand, the government seemed constrained by an old constitution, limiting its room to manoeuvre until a new constitution is in place to make certain actions legally acceptable. While President Morsi pushed for a new constitution, the youths got angrier and more frustrated. In order to contain the slide to anarchy and maintain law and order, the president gave himself extra powers, which many saw as being out of sync with democratic order. Sustained protests by cross-sections of the Egyptian society persuaded Morsi to back down; instead he called a referendum for the political reforms he sought. Egyptians voted in favour of the reforms and President Morsi emerged victorious.

The post-Mubarak ascendency of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the opposition parties as well as secular youths regard with deep suspicion, is behind the latest stand-off. The opposition believes the Brotherhood could now have its way by imposing strict religious reforms into what they say should be a full-fledged Western-style democracy. Clearly, there is need for caution on both sides if Egypt is to be saved from drifting towards division and anarchy.

President Morsi must be more accommodating of the opposition's sentiments on policy matters. Declaring a state of emergency and the deployment of soldiers to disperse protesters, measures jarringly reminiscent of the Mubarak-era, are inimical to democracy. The opposition, on its part, should be patient with the new system. Decades of autocratic rule cannot be ameliorated in the space of a few months; disrupting the normal order through violent protests and civil unrests won't bring stability either. It is in the interest of the opposition and the government-and the larger Egyptian society- at least in this transition era, to cooperate and nurture their new democracy.

Unless Egyptians come together in pursuit of this common objective, and revive the economy, the army might get the excuse it would like to have strike again and truncate democracy for good. Already some generals are crying wolf over the danger they claimed they foresee in the current civil unrests; it may not take them long to stage a return under the pretext of saving the nation. The nation's politicians must cooperate and not let this happen.

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