Yet again Egypt teeters on the brink of something worse, perhaps much worse, than its past three years of turmoil. The sight of so many protesters in central Cairo cheering a flypast of military helicopters, while calling for President Mohamed Morsi’s resignation, will be one of the abiding images of Egypt’s revolution, along with the camel charge in Tahrir Square, the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, and the ousted President being wheeled into his trial on a hospital bed. Each was as disturbing as it was telling.
Few realistically believed that the passage of Egypt’s revolution would run smooth. But the elections that brought Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power largely defied the doom-mongers. The result was accepted. Order was mostly maintained, and it was just possible to envisage Egypt embarking, albeit unsteadily, on a course of political change and economic revival. In successfully brokering the ceasefire between Hamas and Israel last year, Mr Morsi even afforded a glimpse of a leader able to strut the regional and the national stage.
How remote those hopeful days now seem. Just one year on from Mr Morsi’s inauguration, and the message from the huge demonstrations across the country is that Egyptians have already lost patience. More regrettable than this, though, is the apparent readiness of so many to see the military, once again, as a solution. The lure of order, and those who seem able to impose it, is much underestimated by those who have never experienced chaos.
Yesterday Mr Morsi faced a double deadline. On the one hand was the rallying cry of the demonstrators: that he should resign or face a campaign of civil disobedience. On the other was the threat from the military to intervene if he failed to resolve the crisis within 48 hours. The wording suggested that any action could stop short of seizing political control. In all but name, though, the threat was of a military coup.
Such a turn of events would be tragic. It would negate much, if not all, of the progress Egypt has made since the anti-Mubarak uprising and call into question its ability to sustain, at least for the time being, any form of representative government. All popular revolutions automatically contain the seeds of another. Once it has been possible for people-power to overthrow a regime, the temptation for the aggrieved to take to the streets again is that much greater. But perpetual revolution offers no remedy. There is no alternative to hard graft.
Mr Morsi has made mistakes. He failed to use his honeymoon to seek common ground with his adversaries, including the young middle class that had spearheaded the anti-Mubarak uprising. After his peace-broking in Gaza, he tried to grab too much power, calling the independence of the judiciary into question. Above all, though, he did not act swiftly, or at all, to galvanise the economy and provide jobs. Of course, that is far easier said than done, and he could and should have received more help from outside. But he was unable to create the climate of hope Egypt so desperately needed.
The President’s initial response to yesterday’s challenge from the military, however, cannot be faulted. He is an elected head of state, and the military owes him allegiance, not vice versa. He was right not to yield. It may now be too late for him to overcome Egypt’s ever-deepening divisions. But he deserves another chance to try to make civilian government work.