Egypt has a way of putting otherwise rather reasonable people into rather unreasonable positions on a regular basis. The of June 30 protests are no exception. Increasingly, there are opponents of President Mursi who are quietly, but surely, growing more and more doubtful as to whether or not the protests are a good idea – even though they want to see early presidential elections take place, as do the organizers of the protest.
It is something of a quandary, they tell me – and ‘they’ include people within the civil rights community, as well as opposition parties. If there wasn’t such a disastrous political and governing stalemate, they’d prefer Mursi to remain in office, if for no other reason than to show the Egyptian public for once and for all that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a force that should ever be in power – and thus deal their political capital a fatal blow at the next presidential elections in 3 years’ time. The pay-off would not only be an end to the political future of the Brotherhood in Egypt – but potentially, a crippling ripple effect on other Brotherhood movements world-wide.
But there is such a stalemate – and as such, these activists do not have an issue with the idea of calling early presidential elections – on the contrary, they see this as the most peaceful and calm method to take the country out of crisis the country finds itself in. Unlike the supporters of the president, they do not see (and rightly so) the call as being illegal or unconstitutional – but rather, an entirely democratic and consensual way to move forward, given the unpopularity of the president, and the lack of competency within his cabinet and governing party.
Calling for early elections?
The key issue that they increasingly tell me: they cannot perceive a scenario where protests cause President Mursi to call presidential elections. Their calculus is this: Mursi will never leave the office unless he finishes his mandated term of four years, and loses to a challenger in an open and transparent election… or unless he is forced to do so earlier than that. ‘Force’ in this context does not mean the presence of millions, or even tens of millions, on the streets in protest. Rather, it means actual force – either the threat of violence, or violence itself. In other words, as far as they can see: a military intervention.
If the goal of June 30 is to force President Mursi to call early presidential elections through protests, and President Mursi will not do so except if there is incredible social instability… well, either June 30 fails, or social instability takes place.Dr. H.A. Hellyer
There are some in the anti-Muslim Brotherhood camp who are actively encouraging a military coup of some sort – but those among them who are not given to wishful thinking realize that the military is uninterested in, and indeed, unwilling to perpetrate, such a move. The military already has the position it desired through the protections accorded to it under the newly passed constitution – and they have no interest in engaging in any sort of governing role simply to engage in a partisan political dispute.
There is, however, a scenario that the military are reportedly preparing themselves for. If there is social upheaval within the country that threatens a breakdown of public order, similar to what took place on the 28th of January in 2011, then indeed: they are, if reluctantly, willing to engage more directly. With the threat, or even presence, of widespread chaos, they would have little choice – and they would, it is plain, have overwhelming public support. All reliable polls of the past two years have made it abundantly clear: the overwhelming majority of Egyptian citizens express great confidence in the military. Moreover, it is entirely likely and plausible that there would be a sufficient number of opposition political forces that would give ‘civilian cover’ to such a move, by cooperating with the military to either force Mursi out of office, or clip his wings so significantly, it would be as good as removing him.
But herein lies the rub. If the goal of June 30 is to force President Mursi to call early presidential elections through protests, and President Mursi will not do so except if there is incredible social instability… well, either June 30 fails, or social instability takes place. Either inevitability – or by design.
Many activists are keeping a healthy scepticism about the whole scenario, as no-one has actually said they are instigating violence on the 30th – but given the momentum that is growing ahead of June 30, it would be foolish to consider that violence is beyond all probability. If there is the slightest bit of provocation on the side of elements within the opposition, or from the side of the supporters of the president (many of whom regard this as almost a cosmic battle to defend God and His Religion), the resulting violence could be severe. Civil war is not really on the cards for anyone – the polarisation is deep, but not in that manner – but even low level violence among a minority of citizens in a country of almost 90 million that now has more arms than ever is a disturbing situation to contemplate.
Moreover, it envisages the return of direct military rule – regardless of how one wants to portray it, it would be the suspension of democratic norms. It might have overwhelming public support, and there might be a civilian face to it – but it would be a return of direct military intervention into Egypt’s public affairs. There are still supporters of the January 25 revolution that remember, clearly, how that worked out last time. It seems, however, that in Egypt’s population, they are a minority – albeit a principled one.
There are quite a few ways out of this disquieting picture – none of which appear particularly likely. President Mursi could defuse some of the opposition to him, by radically changing his cabinet, for example – but considering that he just appointed a set of Muslim Brotherhood members as new governors, with or without respect to competency, that does not seem to be something to rely on. Indeed, the appointment of a member of Gamma Islamiyya to be the governor of Luxor, the site of a Gamma Islamiyya terrorist attack in 1997, does not encourage the image of an entirely sensible presidency.
Or, indeed, June 30 could go off more or less without a hitch – isolated pockets of clashes in different places. The clashes last week are not heartening signs in this regard – but it could be that the June 30 protests result in something little more than a somewhat more active version of the Ittihadiya protests from last November and December. If that does happen, and the political status quo remains, however, the presidency and the ruling party needn’t take solace in ‘dodging the bullet’ – because the status quo, with the economy degrading further and further, is simply not sustainable.
On the contrary – it is a slow train-wreck, and while no-one knows when it might crash, there are few who doubt that with this team at the helm, further discord is inevitable.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs who previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.