It has been five weeks since the Egyptian army, encouraged by millions of protesters demanding an end to Muslim Brotherhood rule, overthrew President Mohamed Morsi and detained him on charges of harming Egypt’s national security. Morsi, holed up somewhere in a prison on the outskirts of Cairo, has not been seen in public or heard from since he was taken into custody in early July, to the derision of his family and his many followers.
Despite the former president being held by the authorities without access to the outside world, tens of thousands of his supporters remain on the streets in northeast Cairo, chanting for his reinstatement and denouncing what they consider a coup by Egypt’s military leaders.
Massive demonstrations are nothing new in Egypt. The country has seen dozens of such protests in the last two and half years since former president Hosni Mubarak resigned. In many parts of the country, particularly in Cairo, protesting has become the de facto way of dealing with problems and demanding answers — often overshadowing the very democratic process that millions called for in the early months of 2011. The ouster of another president, this time an Islamist, by virtue of another huge show of people power has only reinforced the belief that marching and yelling is the way to get things done.
Egypt’s latest round of political turmoil, however, is different. In contrast to the demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s downfall, where the episode was seen by the world as a good versus evil, people versus dictator scenario, the climate today is more complex.
Morsi was indeed hated by many Egyptians for excluding secular parties and governing above the law but his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood guaranteed that he would at least have the support of a significant political base. The hundreds of thousands of people who are demanding that Morsi is reinstated are not rooting for him personally but for an executive branch led by an Islamist.
The Egyptian army and interim government are starting to lose their patience after five weeks of sit-ins and disruptions to life in the capital city. Interim president Adli Mansour spoke passionately about moving the country forward, whether the Brotherhood likes it or not. The interim prime minister, Hazem Beblawi, vowed to end the Islamists’ protests and said the decision to do so was “final,” whatever Egypt’s allies in the West might say. The man behind the throne, defense chief Abdul Fatah Sisi, appears the hardliner, refusing to release top Brotherhood officials from custody and pledging to guide Egypt toward a new era of democracy on the military’s timetable.
Both sides, it seems, are not susceptible to compromise at the moment, despite the international community’s best attempts to get the interim government and Morsi’s supporters in the same room. After an emergency trip by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham failed to persuade Sisi to budge, both returned to Washington afraid that the Arab world’s most populous country could descend into civil war. Mediation from American Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, United Nations secretary general Ban ki-Moon and Arab as well as European diplomats have similarly yielded no results.
All actors in Egypt must recognize what needs to happen. The military, for instance, should release Morsi and some of his associates to revive the political process. Protesters need to keep their activities peaceful. The Muslim Brotherhood has to accept that Morsi will not be restored as president. The security forces need to act with the utmost restraint. And Egypt’s interim government must allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in future politics.
For now, neither side seems prepared to blink first, though.