Egypt's police were scheduled today to break up large sit-ins in Cairo and Giza, trying to end demonstrations intended to reinstate ousted president Mohamed Morsi. Should the police proceed, there was expected to be some confrontation. But more importantly, the dispersal may be seen as the final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s very brief experiment with democracy.
The army is now clearly determining Egypt’s political process, despite the fig leaf of installing a nominally civilian administration. This was to assuage the US and to entice the country to continue its military and financial support.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to not be included in the newest administration confirmed the fracturing of Egyptian political society. This fracturing has now created space for the rise of Islamist terrorism and, in response, the increasing political grip of the army.
In this environment, Egypt is unlikely to return to elections in the foreseeable future. And any such elections would probably be boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood in any case. But the rise of political violence, in response, would rationalise the army’s seizure of effective political power and ensure that it retained a tight rein over the political process.
There was never any likelihood that the sit-in protests, which have attracted tens of thousands of supporters, would have seen Morsi returned to office. But while they have been tolerated, Egypt’s political tensions have been relatively contained.
The dispersal of the sit-ins would show Muslim Brotherhood supporters that not only is democracy in Egypt a sham but so is the legitimacy of public protest. In the face of declining options, the current political climate has led to a split within the Muslim Brotherhood, with more radical Islamist elements moving to embrace terrorism.
Confirming a move in this direction, at least 25 alleged members of the militant Ansar Bayt Al-Maqdis group were killed or injured in a helicopter attack in the northern Sinai on Saturday. The Egyptian army said the group had stockpiled weapons and been involved in recent attacks against army personnel.
The al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia, which was responsible for last year's attack on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, has also said it was collecting weapons and recruiting militants for training in preparation for war in Egypt.
Winning Egypt’s presidential elections with a 3.4% margin in 2012, Morsi was the preferred candidate of a small majority of Egyptians. But facing an unholy coalition of liberals, supporters of the ousted dictatorial president Hosni Mubarak and the army, rather than pursue moderation, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party pushed an overtly Islamist political agenda.
Having little experience with democratic principles, including an inflexible religious-political agenda, Egypt’s fragile post-Mubarak politics was pushed to -- and then over -- the brink.
As a result, those Islamists who supported the experiment with representative democracy now see nowhere else to turn, while Islamists who never had faith in electoral politics have simply had their cynicism confirmed. With the army also having no commitment to democratic processes and Egypt’s liberals having sold out, we can expect the country’s dead democracy to be buried under increasing violence.
The recent news reporting about Egypt's political crisis creates the impression the country has fallen into the hands of a band of ultra-conservative mullahs intent on forcing women into niqab (full covering) and chopping off light-fingered hands. Egypt is clearly in turmoil -- but the current troubles are more complex than opposition to a supposed radical religious takeover.
The protests have been centred on opposition to the country’s proposed new constitution, planned to go to referendum this Saturday. But much of the protest is now also explicitly opposed to the continuing presidency of Mohammad Morsi. Given his election in June in what was widely regarded as a free and fair process, this begs the question of the Egyptian opposition’s commitment to democratic processes.
If it was intended as an act of sneaky rat cunning -- first get elected and then seize total power -- Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi's edicts last Thursday which have thrown the country into turmoil were both painfully transparent as well as being a high-risk gamble.
Exempting presidential decrees from judicial review fundamentally challenges the idea of separation of powers, which is critical to democratic functioning, is on the face of it an anti-democratic act. However, Egypt's judiciary remains that which was appointed by previous dictator Hosni Mubarak and there was real concern that it could, with the stroke of a pen, roll back the revolution.
The judiciary's hobbling of Egypt's parliament showed it is certainly not averse to wielding its power in overtly political ways.