As this magazine goes to press, vast numbers of Egyptians are demanding the resignation of their president for the second time since 2011. The Arab world’s most populous nation does need urgent change, but it doesn’t need another revolution.
President Mohamed Mursi’s tenure has been, in a word, disastrous. During his year in power, Mursi has failed not only to elaborate a plausible economic program but also to govern for all Egyptians. His only significant success came early in his presidency, when he outmaneuvered the military, sidelining the institution as a force in civilian politics. This important achievement could be undone if Mursi is ejected from power. Generals—as Pakistanis, Turks, and others will attest—can do more damage to democratic and economic progress than an incompetent civilian leader. They are also harder to remove.
Any Egyptian president will face enormous challenges in trying to fix what is broken in the economy and leading a divided society. Islamists and their well-organized followers will feel angry and disenfranchised if Mursi is deposed. They would undoubtedly organize new protests and make new demands for the resignation of the next president. The precedent would be set.
So far Mursi has proposed dialogue, which is good but nowhere near enough. One way forward would be for the president to dismiss the Cabinet and offer to negotiate a new transitional government with ministers from the principal political parties. He should commit in advance to approving a prime minister who wouldn’t be an Islamist; he should also set a timetable for new parliamentary elections and establish a genuinely cross-party committee to amend the constitution.
The U.S. and other governments can help by restating the principle they supported in the 2011 revolution: the right to free and fair elections and the construction of effective democratic institutions. U.S. support should focus on principles of a free vote and a balanced constitutional order. That should be made especially clear to the military as it decides how and whether to intervene.
What counts now for Egypt above all else is speed in getting its economy on track. A $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund aid package can help unlock the domestic and foreign investment that Egypt needs to create jobs and reduce its crippling 13 percent unemployment rate, which was a focus of the protests two years ago.
A prerequisite for the aid, however, is ripping off the Band-Aid of subsidies that now consume too much of the government’s budget. Even with payments to reimburse the needy, this will be unpopular and may be impossible for Egypt’s government to carry out in the current climate. All the more reason for Mursi to reach out, form a genuine coalition government, and share responsibility for the pain.