Egypt is facing its worst political crisis since the January 2011 revolution ousted former dictator Hosni Mubarak, with analysts warning of a possible civil war. Furthermore, unlike during the revolution, opposition to the current regime is bitterly divided between Islamists and more secular Egyptians.
The inability of Muslim Brotherhood (MB) supporters and their Islamist allies to find common ground with opponents of President Mohamed Mursi is exacerbated by deep divisions within the revolutionary opposition as they struggle to formulate a strategy forward. Another crucial factor is the uncertain role of Egypt’s military in forthcoming political developments
“Egypt is in for a protracted and prolonged political struggle ahead. The current situation is untenable. It looks like we could be heading towards civil war. The wild card on the table is the military, as it is uncertain which side it will take,” Gamal Nkrumah, a political analyst and the international affairs editor at Egypt’s Al-Ahram Weekly newspaper, told IPS.
Weeks of protest, sparked by a Nov. 22 decree issued by Mursi which would have granted him sweeping powers beyond judiciary mediation, forced the Brotherhood-affiliated Mursi to cancel the decree on Dec. 7 after the violence, which inflamed Egyptian cities and towns, threatened to spiral out of control.
However, a new modified decree will still afford the president enormous powers with minimal judicial oversight. Furthermore, Mursi’s decision to rush through a referendum on an Islamist-dominated constitution on Dec. 15, despite limited consultation with minority groups, including Coptic Christians, women and liberal politicians, has further enraged the opposition.
“Four of Mursi’s non-Islamist advisors resigned after they tried to persuade him to be more inclusive with the new constitution. They even postponed their resignation for a week, but when Mursi showed no signs of backing down they eventually left,” Nkrumah said.
Bloody street battles between MB supporters and revolutionary opposition members culminated in the deaths of at least seven people, and hundreds were arrested and wounded, as the presidential palace was stormed by opposition members over the weekend of Dec. 8-9 despite the presence of tanks and revolutionary guards. Six people were killed in previous weeks of violence.
During the bloody nights and days of fighting, journalists and doctors were assaulted and shot at, resulting in the death of a doctor and a reporter left with serious brain damage. The role of Egypt’s military was brought into question, with some reports of soldiers siding with Brotherhood members and others of military members sympathising and encouraging the revolutionaries.
So far the military has officially stayed on the sidelines. But on Saturday Dec. 8 it issued a statement warning of impending action if the warring factions failed to resolve their differences through dialogue.
“Anything other than dialogue will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences. The nation as a whole will pay the price, something which we won’t allow,” the statement said.
“Which way the military dice will fall is the big question,” said Nkrumah, the son of Ghana’s late president Kwame Nkrumah and an Egyptian Coptic mother.
“While high-ranking military officers traditionally sided with the former regime of Mubarak, it is uncertain where the loyalty of the second tier of the army now lies and how far their ranks have been infiltrated by the Brotherhood. Many of the poorer, less educated lower-ranking soldiers are probably MB sympathisers.”
Another part of the equation is whether the powerful judiciary will throw its weight behind the Islamists or behind the revolutionaries, although indications so far are that it is hostile to Mursi’s government.
“Traditionally many in the judiciary were also supporters of Mubarak. But like the military, both institutions have been infiltrated by the MB and both sides have their sympathisers,” Nkrumah said.
What does appear certain, however, is that neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor their opponents are prepared to compromise.
“The Brotherhood is consolidating its power on the ground with the Salafists. They believe they have God on their side and are fighting for the survival of and further implementation of Sharia law,” Nkrumah said.
For their part, the secular parties, unlike the Islamists, have limited electoral support, no message with widespread appeal and no apparatus to reach deeply into society in order to drum up support.
“They have been weak and divided in the past and it remains to be seen whether they can unite, put their differences aside and formulate a path ahead,” Nkrumah added.
“The standoff is the unavoidable consequence of a struggle for power between two political forces that have no incentive to compete in the same political arena on the basis of accepted rules of the game,” says Marina Ottaway, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“One side (MB) fights through the vote, and the other (pro-Mubarak elite) through the courts—and both appeal to the streets to bypass the official political process,” she wrote in a late November article, “A Choice of Two Tyrannies”.
“The confrontation increasingly is taking on the character of a Greek tragedy, with Egypt hurtling toward authoritarianism no matter which side prevails. The only question is whether it will be the tyranny of the Islamist majority or that of the secular minority.
“Either way, the prospects for a democratic denouement to the uprising…are dim—non-existent in the short-run and questionable at best in the medium-run, with the long run too distant to hazard predictions.”