Editorial: Violence that bodes ill for Egypt's future

 

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It is no revelation to say that regime change is often messy, whether the impetus comes from outside, as in Iraq, or from within, as in Egypt. Blowing the lid off a seething cauldron only exposes the myriad currents competing beneath. To count on a calm and uncontested transition in such circumstances is foolhardy.

But Egypt's transition has unleashed violence in unexpected places. The football pitch, which elsewhere has allowed opposing factions to play out their hostility by non-lethal means, has become something of a war zone in itself. At Port Said last February, more than 70 people were killed in a riot following a match between the home team, al-Masry, and al-Ahly from Cairo. And last week, when a Cairo court sentenced all 21 defendants to death for their role in that violence, to whoops of joy from the courtroom, the rioters simply picked up where they left off. In Port Said more than 30 people were reported killed, including two footballers; the prison was stormed and the state security building set on fire. Yesterday's funerals brought more violence.

Egypt's new rulers have shown a particular knack for poor timing. The sentences in the Port Said riot case were handed down just the day after Egypt had marked two years since the fall of Hosni Mubarak – an occasion bound to exacerbate the country's divisions. That anniversary brought protests, some violent, in many Egyptian cities, where people expressed their dissatisfaction with President Morsi and with each other. By yesterday, there were seven dead and more than 400 injured nationwide. The potential for the different protests – the football and the politics – to fuse to malign effect should have been clear for all to see.

The timing of the sentences was not the authorities' only misstep. They had already precipitated needless uncertainty by annulling the first trial of the former President and calling a new one. With Mr Mubarak old and ill – so ill last time around that he was brought to the courtroom on his hospital bed – it is hard to conceive of any decision less likely to quell political passions and promote the spirit of common purpose that Egypt so badly needs. And this was after President Morsi had inflicted a blow to his own, and Egypt's, interests by seizing the power to overrule the country's judiciary. At home and abroad, this false move almost eclipsed his achievement in brokering the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza.

Such confused signals and outright mistakes can be put down partly to Mr Morsi's inexperience of politics and government, after the decades in which the Muslim Brotherhood existed, at best, in a twilight zone. But they have only accelerated the growth of popular disillusionment. The economy is still in a dire state; tourism remains in the doldrums – and the latest violence will hardly remedy that. No progress has been made either in stemming unemployment or boosting public services – failures that reflect poorly on the efficacy of government.

This is not to negate the progress that has been made in the past two years. Egyptians have been to the ballot box no fewer than four times, in reasonably good order, and some of the recent violence doubtless reflects the heady effects of sudden freedom. But Mr Morsi does not have the luxury of time. With legislative elections due in late spring, he has still to convince voters that government can improve their lives and that there are better ways to settle differences than resorting to violence on the streets.

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