As Egyptians steel themselves for a return to the tension and chaos that led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak, one question above all hangs in the air: does President Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, with its very particular vision of an Islamist future for the country, have what it takes to govern a nation as old, sophisticated and diverse as Egypt? And if not, what do its opponents, once again crowding into Tahrir Square tomorrow, plan to do about it?
Mr Morsi has certainly made mistakes, as he admitted this week. The country’s economy is in freefall. With hard currency running out, so is the fuel that it purchases, leaving petrol stations besieged by desperate drivers night and day. No less of a concern is that the soaring food prices that were the common factor behind the Arab revolts of 2011 are now shooting up again, having doubled in the past year. Even the water supply is threatened – by a new dam being built on the Nile upstream in Ethiopia.
While none of these problems can be laid exclusively at Mr Morsi’s door, they have, without question, been aggravated by the divisive and sectarian character of the Muslim Brotherhood, of which his Freedom and Justice party is an offshoot.
From its beginnings in Tunisia, the Arab Spring was about the young, the educated and the relatively secular struggling to free their countries from the dead-weight of corruption and tyranny. In this, in Tunisia and Egypt at least, they appeared to have succeeded beyond measure. But, as all successful revolutionaries know, overthrowing the dictator is only the first step. And in Egypt, they were drastically unprepared to take the next one.
The Muslim Brotherhood, by far the best organised anti-Mubarak group in the country, rushed into the vacuum. Indeed, the party was kept alive by the former President only in an attempt to prove he was not a dictator. In the first post-Spring election, one year ago, many of the secular-minded protesters voted for Mr Morsi, refusing to back candidates tainted by links to the Mubarak regime and choosing to believe the Islamist candidate’s insistence that he would be an inclusive President.
Sad to say, such promises are looking increasingly thin. The evidence of recent months is that, under the cover of Mr Morsi’s mandate, the Brotherhood is ruthlessly advancing its own sectarian and fundamentalist agenda. Coptic Christians, eight of whom were killed in attacks by Muslims in April, are fleeing the country in unprecedented numbers, claiming – with some justification – that they no longer feel safe in Egypt. Meanwhile, just this week, four Shia Muslims were killed and mutilated by a mob apparently led by fundamentalist Salafi sheikhs in a village in Greater Cairo, following months of anti-Shia rhetoric which at times involved the Muslim Brotherhood. Such killings reflect the Sunni/Shia violence spreading like a stain across the Muslim world, and which is deeply implicated in the ongoing violence in both Syria and Iraq. And Al-Azhar, Cairo’s most august fount of Ereligious learning, has publicly called for an end to the spread of Shiism in the country.
Egypt, as the bellwether of a fractious region, needs desperately to rise above religious division. In this cultural heart of the Arab world, what happens there sends a powerful message to its neighbours. The protesters swarming into Tahrir Square tomorrow will be motivated by anger – not only at Mr Morsi, but also at themselves for putting him in power. Forcing his resignation is not the remedy, however. After all, the election was won fair and square. Opponents of the government need not resort to grandstanding; instead they must focus on the more difficult business of organising a workable alternative.