Egypt's Mursi and Opposition Are Risking Military Rule

a | A

By Marc Champion

Egypt's weekend orgy of violence has left about 50 people dead and exposed a crisis of bad faith -- between the Islamist government, the secular opposition and legacy institutions of the old regime -- that is rapidly spinning out of control.

President Mohamed Mursi imposed emergency rule in the provinces affected, and at the same time called for dialogue with opposition parties, which believe he is a wannabe dictator. That's a tough mix to pull off, and the similarities to former President Hosni Mubarak's response to protests two years ago are escaping nobody.

The opposition, meanwhile, said they didn't want to talk to Mursi, thereby exposing their own contribution to the current mess.

Here are a few questions worth asking, at a time when no analysts worth their salt claim to understand exactly what is going on in the Arab world's most important country.

What inspired Egypt's courts to decide that the best time to hand down 21 death sentences to soccer fans in a murder trial was the weekend of the anniversary of the revolution -- that being the most politically volatile few days of the year, and football fans being active participants in political protests?

What inspired those same courts to decide that the best place to hold a trial of fans from Port Said charged with attacking and killing fans from Cairo in Port Said last February, was in Cairo? The judges could not have handled this in a more provocative way had they tried.

And knowing all this, why was crowd control in Port Said left to a handful of despised policemen, when furious protests were inevitable? These being the same security forces widely held to be partly to blame for the original soccer-fan clash a year ago, and the attempt to crush the revolution a year before that.

Egypt has been suffering a vacuum of both security and effective governance since Mubarak was forced from office, and Mursi has made some colossal errors of hubris to stoke the problem. The blame is not all his, but the responsibility to find ways to end the cycle of violence is.

Mursi has to start bridging the divide with the opposition that he and the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government have done so much to create: Stabbing his finger, as he did on television while announcing the reintroduction of Mubarak's emergency powers, was not the way to do it. If he has forgotten Mubarak's failure, Mursi has more recent evidence of why this kind of high-handed behaviour doesn't work: the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's offers to talk to the opposition, while at the same time branding them as terrorists.

What neither Mursi nor the secular opposition parties seem to fully grasp is that their current path risks years of chaos and an eventual return to military rule, either de jure or de facto. Egypt is starting to look disturbingly like Turkey in the late 1970s, when the military seized power to end bloodshed in the streets. To this day, the average Turk believes -- rightly or wrongly -- that a so-called deep state within the security forces and judiciary played a role in stoking that violence to create conditions for a coup.

Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood need to be smarter than they have been until now. They have to make real concessions and build bridges to their secular opponents, even though they won elections with a majority. Using victory at the polls to try to quickly force through the will of the Islamist majority clearly isn't working. It is also evident by now that the security forces are unable, and perhaps even unwilling, to control the fallout.

The opposition has also become part of the problem. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief and Nobel Prize winner, responded to the call for dialogue by describing it as "a waste of time." He insisted that the only basis for talks would be if Mursi agreed upfront to rewrite the constitution and form a government of national salvation with the opposition.

There's nothing wrong with ElBaradei's proposals. The constitution's lack of consensus support is a self-inflicted problem that Mursi will have to face sooner or later; and Mursi should welcome a coalition government to share responsibility before elections, which should take place sometime in the spring. But these are the things the opposition should talk about with Mursi, rather than setting conditions as the country burns.

(Marc Champion is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

-0- Jan/28/2013 15:01 GMT