Once again, Egyptians are out in the streets. Yet these demonstrations are quite different from those in January and February 2011, when people of every faith, class, and political persuasion joined together to bring down a dictator. Indeed, Egypt's triumph of national unity has turned into a bitter impasse over narrow interests. Demonstrators surround the Supreme Constitutional Court not to protect the sacred institution but to shut it down, judges declare an open-ended strike, and groups of angry protesters rally against one another, each challenging the other's right to a place in the national dialogue. In the abstract, heated debate is a good thing for countries undergoing political transitions. In Egypt, however, the result has been instability.
There are a variety of explanations for Egypt's tribulations. Some argue that decisions made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) back in February and March 2011, including on the timing of the transition and the principles that guided it, explain the current bind. Others point to the lack of a permanent constitution and parliament, which the SCAF dissolved in June 2012 at the recommendation of Egypt's highest court. These critics argue that the absence of rules, regulations, and laws left the country vulnerable to the whims of incompetent generals and then authoritarian Islamists. Egyptian liberals and secular revolutionaries, meanwhile, fear the Islamist ideology of President Mohammed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood leader. Egypt's newly approved draft constitution, which includes a particular interpretation of Islamic law, and a massive Brotherhood-sponsored rally last Saturday to "save sharia" from opponents of the new code only reinforce their fears.
There is truth in all of these explanations. Certainly, it would have been easier to consolidate a new political order if the SCAF had laid out a more sensible transition, if the officers had not dissolved the People's Assembly, or if the drafting of the highest law in the land had been more inclusive. But the deadlock in Egyptian politics runs deeper. Morsi's decisions last month to grant himself powers