Middle East

Egypt crisis: Revolutionary reset or something worse?

Protesters react to news of coup in Tahrir Square, Cairo
Image caption The deposition of Mohammed Morsi followed four days of mass demonstration

The incredible, emotionally charged scenes that have been unfolding in Cairo's Tahrir Square are reminiscent of those two-and-a-half years ago.

Fireworks were set off and vast crowds waving Egyptian flags noisily celebrated after former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011.

It had taken 18 days of unprecedented street protests to remove a leader of 30 years who had ruled with just a veneer of democracy.

A turbulent period of military rule followed until last year's free and fair presidential elections brought the Islamist Mohammed Morsi to power with 51.7% of the vote.

Now it has taken just four days of mass demonstrations to depose Mr Morsi after criticism of him mounted and the armed forces ultimately turned against him as they had his predecessor.

So, are the latest developments a chance for Egypt to press the revolutionary reset button or will they lead to more dangerous division and violence?

Military manoeuvres

When the top army commander, Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, announced the suspension of the new Islamist-tinged constitution and his roadmap for a return to democratic rule, he was careful not to repeat some mistakes by his predecessor.

Image caption Gen Abdul Fattah al-Sisi said Mr Morsi had failed to meet demands for national unity

Unlike Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's long-time defence minister who went on to temporarily replace him, Gen Sisi appointed the head of the supreme constitutional court, Adli Mansour, to be the new interim leader.

Gen Sisi said a technocratic government would assist him until presidential and parliamentary elections were held.

During his live statement on Egyptian television, the military man also made sure that he had important religious and political leaders standing symbolically at his side.

After a recent increase in sectarian violence it was particularly powerful to hear the head of al-Azhar Islamic Institute and the Coptic Christian Pope supporting his move.

The head of the main liberal opposition bloc, Mohammed ElBaradei also spoke, saying that the people's demands had been met and the 2011 revolution had been re-launched.

Enduring power

The numbers of pro-Morsi supporters who have been demonstrating in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Nasr City for the past week do not match those in the heart of the capital.

Image caption Mr Morsi said when he came to power he would head a government "for all Egyptians"

However, their enduring presence is a sign of the high tensions that have yet to be addressed.

There is shock and deep anger among Mr Morsi's backers at their sudden change in fortunes; their man is suddenly out of the presidential palace, reportedly in a Republican Guard barracks surrounded by soldiers and barbed wire.

They see recent events as a clear military coup that undermines democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mr Morsi stems, is Egypt's oldest and largest Islamist organisation and remains its most powerful political group.

Since it was able to form a legal political party after the 2011 uprising it has proved its ability to mobilise a national grassroots network, winning parliamentary and presidential elections.

Although there is very little trust between the Brotherhood and other political forces, it would be a mistake to try to exclude it from the political scene.

Secular guardian

Some analysts have been pointing to the worrying precedents that have been set elsewhere in the region for military intervention.

Image caption Critics say Mr Morsi failed to deliver on his promise to give Egypt a facelift

Although it has recently been less involved in politics, Turkey's armed services have previously removed elected governments four times.

In Algeria, more than 150,000 people were killed in brutal civil strife after the military annulled the results of the 1992 elections won by an Islamist party.

The past few days have served as a clear reminder that Egypt's army is the strongest institution in the country. It has consolidated its role as a guardian of secular values.

Much now depends on whether the military can restore order without bloodshed. Then will come the test of whether it can deliver its promise of building a cohesive, inclusive government to steer Egypt through the rocky times ahead.

The next government's primary task will be addressing a severe economic crisis: investment and tourism have been devastated by the continuing unrest and mismanagement.

Inflation has soared and there are regular power cuts and fuel shortages.

Failure to deal with these problems will only lead to deeper disappointment and could continue the cycle of protests.

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