How can Egypt get out of crisis?

Supporters of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans in Cairo, Egypt, on 28 July 2012

Egypt must brace itself for many more days, if not weeks, of political turmoil and violence. But there are no signs at this stage that a Syria-style conflict will engulf the country.

Egyptians are discovering in a more public and painful way than other Arab Spring states that removing long-standing authoritarian rule is a lot easier than replacing it with another system of governance.

The priority of the popular uprisings was to topple dictatorships, and little thought was given to what might come next.

The general assumption was that freeing Arab countries from autocracy would automatically herald democracy. But this is where the Arab Spring has come unstuck. For a prerequisite of democracy is politics.

In order for politics to flourish one needs open debate. Yet open debate is not easy to achieve in a country like Egypt where there is no tradition, from school onwards, of the frank analysis of ideas, and the free and peaceful exchange of opinions.

In the absence of all the above, Egypt is floundering as it seeks to create a post-Mubarak political system. The most dangerous symptom of this is polarisation and the absence of willingness to compromise for the sake of the country as a whole.

The political process since the fall of ousted former leader Hosni Mubarak has served only to emphasise the schism in Egyptian society. The Muslim Brotherhood won elections, but then failed to persuade millions of Egyptians that their policies were inclusive.

The army responded to popular dissatisfaction with President Mohammed Morsi by toppling the Muslim Brotherhood administration and thereby alienating something between a third and half the population.

That, surely, should have been the moment for calm attempts at political reconciliation. But, with Mr Morsi under lock and key and with clashes between rival groups on the streets, the military made what was arguably the most damaging decision of all: it urged anti-Morsi protesters to stage a mass rally to give the army a popular mandate to take tough measures against its opponents.

In a stroke, this announcement cut the legs off the ailing figure of Egyptian democracy - for it sanctified the street as the main platform for politics, with force of numbers, rocks, tear gas and bullets taking the place of rational debate.

Bruising confrontation

The formidable challenge for Egypt today is to rescue politics from the street as the first step towards national reconciliation. The problem is finding the means to achieve this.

Army soldiers stand guard on a street leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo on 26 July 2013 Until Mohammed Morsi was ousted, the army was regarded as the sole political arbiter in Egypt

The military shows no signs of backing down. Rather, it is stepping up pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters, arresting its leaders and threatening to disperse demonstrators.

The Brotherhood, for its part, insists that protests will continue until the military-backed government steps down and the democratically elected one is returned to power. The killings of dozens of Islamists in clashes with the army have only hardened attitudes.

Up until the ousting of Mr Morsi on 3 July, the army was regarded as the sole political arbiter in Egypt. With the military now siding with the anti-Morsi camp, it has lost that role.

No other Egyptian institution or individual appears to be able to take it on.

Arab mediation is unlikely, given the schism in the region over the army's move, with a number of states delighted to see the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam humiliated.

Diplomatic intervention from outside the region is likely to be viewed by both entrenched sides as unwarranted interference.

So in the short term, there seems little hope for anything other than bruising street confrontations between Morsi supporters on one side, and the military (and anti-Morsi crowds) on the other.

Full-scale civil war in the traditional sense will be avoided simply because the Islamists lack the fire power and armaments for a full confrontation with the army. Also, unlike Syria, regional powers have no vested interests in stoking the conflict.

Hope?

Nevertheless, continuing violence will mean yet more chaos, leading to increased disruption to the economy and daily life.

Herein, perhaps, lies a glimmer of hope.

Soaring unemployment and poverty might in the end force Egyptians to put aside their differences and demand that their leaders do the same to save the whole country from social and economic collapse.

At that point, Egypt will still need men and women courageous enough to encourage free and inclusive debate, thus laying the foundations of politics and democracy that the country and all Arab Spring countries desperately need.

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