Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Courtesy Reuters Protesters shout slogans against President Mohamed Morsi in Tahrir square in Cairo July 1, 2013.

The Irony of Tahrir Square

Letter From Cairo

For the past several days, as Egypt has approached the political cliff, the country has been seized by an ironic sense of nostalgia. Protesters massing to end Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s term have openly invoked the 18-day uprising that ousted the country’s former president, Hosni Mubarak, from power in 2011.

In truth, there are similarities: Like 2011’s protest, the Tamarod (meaning “rebellion”) movement, the grass-roots signature campaign that is demanding early elections, sprang up independently of the formal opposition and has reached citizens that the opposition never touched. And the crowd, festive and optimistic, is socially diverse and organic. Like Mubarak, Morsi has even been given his own demeaning barnyard nickname. Mubarak spent much of his time in power widely known as la vache qui rit -- “the laughing cow” (the brand of a popular French-made cheese) -- because of his perceived lack of intelligence. In chants and signs this week, Morsi has been referred to as al kharouf (“the sheep”) -- implying that he remains subservient to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Guidance Council.

Despite the similarities, though, this is not 2011. Whatever happens over the next few days, Egypt is in more dangerous territory than it was 29 months ago -- and the downsides are much more frightening.

For starters, even without a political crisis, Egypt is teetering on the brink of economic failure, which is one of the factors contributing to the unrest. Making things more troubling: One of the country’s most generous patrons, Qatar, is heavily invested in the Brotherhood project. As the must-follow Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr wrote in a recent tweet: “So will Qatar be demanding a refund now, or what?” If Morsi is indeed ousted, that supply of vital Qatari largesse might just dry up, leaving the transitional government scrambling for emergency relief.

In terms of politics, the military faces a legal and procedural obstacle. Beyond forcing early elections and the downfall of an elected president, suspending the constitution -- which, according to the Egyptian state news agency, is among the steps in the military's transition plan -- would also raise genuine questions of legitimacy and democratic propriety. After all, this is not the threadbare and discredited Mubarak constitution. This document, although deeply divisive and absolutely hated by secularists, was still narrowly approved in a nationwide referendum.

In addition, as much as the protesters might want it to, the Muslim Brotherhood will not simply leave, as Mubarak did. After all, it has been a mainstay in Egyptian politics for decades; even Mubarak, in his 30-year reign, could not get rid of it. The pro-Morsi protests and Egypt’s first round of presidential elections last summer indicated that the Muslim Brotherhood’s true national support is likely still around 25 percent of registered voters.

Whoever leads the government next, therefore, will have to somehow make peace with the Brotherhood. The military knows this, which is why, as H. A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow with the Brookings Institution, told me, the 48-hour waiting period seems designed to allow the Brotherhood to assess its dire situation and accept some sort of strategic retreat from the Morsi presidency, after which it would regroup and focus on future elections. In addition, he said, there is “fear of a backlash from the Brotherhood.”

The military has more than the Muslim Brotherhood to worry about: The country does not trust the armed forces quite as much as it once did. The 15 post-Mubarak months under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces bred just as many hard feelings and bitterness as Morsi’s year in power. To be sure, as the anti-Morsi movement has reached its crescendo, the military has been openly playing to the protesters, with quite a bit of success. But that does not mean that the opposition is unified about the prospect of military involvement.

Wael Khalil, a veteran socialist activist, told me last week that he favors a peaceful ouster of Morsi and early presidential elections, but he regards military intervention to achieve that goal as “a nightmare scenario.” He supports instead pushing Morsi to declare early elections through sustained civil disobedience. He seems to be in the minority, but he is far from alone. Khalil has since told me that he is slightly optimistic that the military will know better than to monopolize power or overstay its welcome this time. But either way, he and other like-minded activists will be watching the army’s every move.

One final difference between 2011 and 2013 has to do with whether there is any way for the standoff to end in a manner that allows Egyptian politics to proceed normally. In 2011, that was the hope. In 2013, it seems less likely. After pushing out an elected president, all sides would have to show greater flexibility and bipartisan inclusiveness than they have so far. Without that, Egypt might never progress on its path toward development and stability. 

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