Mursi Can't Beat the Protests. He Should Join Them

With hours to go before the Egyptian military's deadline expired, and as clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohamed Mursi left at least 16 dead and 200 wounded, here's what the two sides had to say:

Mursi: "If the price of safeguarding legitimacy is my own blood, I am willing to sacrifice it."

The Facebook page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces: "We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool."

For radicals in the military's statement, read Islamists; terrorists include anyone who points a weapon at the army or organizes resistance. No prizes for guessing who the "fool" is. More bloodshed is certain and nobody should be under any illusions: "the people" are on both sides, and the army has chosen one.

Mursi is right in principle but wrong in political fact. He lost the right to take such a high and mighty stand when he interpreted his free and fair, but narrow 2012 election victory as a mandate to rule without inclusion or compromise. He knew he was taking power in a divided country, following a revolution in which he and his movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, played only a supporting role, and where he would have to work with elements of the old regime if Egypt and its battered economy were to stand a chance. Yet often in the last year he has seemed more worried about preventing Salafist parties from making inroads into the Brotherhood's political base.

What Mursi should have said in his rambling speech last night was that the military's ultimatum was unnecessary, and that when he had earlier offered to engage with the protesters, he had in mind creating just the kind of road map and transitional coalition government that the armed forces appeared themselves to be proposing. What would he have had to lose? By then, at least five members of his cabinet had resigned, abandoning what they saw as a sinking ship.

Instead, Mursi decided to call the military's bluff, always a bad move when the other side has tanks and you don't. He called his supporters into the streets to demonstrate the cost that the armed forces will have to pay if it persists -- a possible massacre of Egyptian civilians. This is something the military tried hard to avoid in the 2011 revolution.

Mursi must know that the generals can't afford to back down. He should know, too, that the Salafist Nour party's decision to call for early elections rather than support him creates potential new Islamist partners for the generals to include in any coalition government. In other words, the president's position is weak.

If he isn't willing to take part in talks on a road map (still his best option), Mursi should follow the 2007 example of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faced a similar attempt by a military-backed ancien regime and hostile courts to force him and his Islamic party from power.

Erdogan defied the military, too. As in Egypt, Turkey's generals hadn't yet rolled tanks, but had published a somewhat cryptic threat online (Facebook hadn't hit Turkey yet). Erdogan did so by calling the army's bluff, though: He brought forward elections, and he fought them on the question of whether Turks wanted to have a genuine elected democracy or not. He increased his share of the vote by more than 12 percentage points, to 47 percent, from 34 percent in 2002.

Mursi might not win such a vote. Indeed I suspect he wouldn't, because he has been too awful a president. Erdogan, by contrast, had worked hard to prove Islamist stereotypes wrong and to deliver an economic boom. (Tragically, Erdogan has treated recent protests in Turkey as if he were facing another rear-guard action by a military-secularist establishment, like the one he defeated in 2007.)

Calling elections after a year isn't ideal, but it isn't unprecedented in democracies either, when leaders have clearly lost the confidence of the electorate. If Mursi tries to face down the military, he must surely lose, doing damage to Egypt's infant democracy that could take many years to repair, even if extensive bloodshed is avoided.

In going back to voters, Mursi would save his country from a potential civil war on the scale of Algeria's 1990s conflict between the regime and electorally thwarted Islamists, which cost tens and possibly hundreds of thousands lives. That, surely, is worth sacrificing one man's pride and hold on power. It is probably the one act as president for which Mursi would be remembered well.

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