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Egypt’s plight worsens by the day. But the rest of the world can still help

Any resolution of the situation requires concessions from all sides. But such compromise now looks further away than ever

Egypt’s clock is running backwards.

Barely more than two years after joining the Arab Spring and throwing off the repression of Hosni Mubarak, an army-installed government has returned the country to martial law, the prime minister is calling for the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood to be outlawed once again, and international concerns are being denounced as foreign bias.

How depressingly familiar. Indeed, were one were searching for the emblem of Egypt’s slide back towards winter darkness, then the possible release of Mubarak is surely it. According to his lawyers, the former strongman could be out of prison within days. If so, any shred of hope that the military’s overthrow of Mohamed Morsi was merely a temporary response to a dissatisfied populace, rather than a calculated power-grab, is gone.

The situation already grows grimmer by the day. Not only is violence still flaring between troops and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, with more than 830 lives lost since last Wednesday’s clearance of Cairo’s pro-Morsi protest camps. The nature of the clashes also grows steadily more alarming. The reports of policemen ambushed in long-unstable Sinai and van-loads of Islamists killed, in uncertain circumstances, on their way to prison only add to the sense of a country unravelling.

For the interim government – notably now without Mohamed elBaradei, the prominent liberal who stepped down after last week’s massacres – such confusion is grist to the mill. The bloody crackdown is increasingly justified as a defence against terrorists. The longer it continues, the more what radicals there are will exploit the instability, and the more radicalised the moderate opposition will become.

Any resolution of the situation requires concessions from all sides. But compromise – always difficult, amid such long-standing mistrust – is now further away than ever. It is too easy to counsel despair, however. The situation may, indeed, be “very bleak” – as the Foreign Secretary rightly characterised it yesterday – but we cannot give up on Egypt, even so.

Europe, in particular, has much to contribute. The Arab Spring has stirred up intense regional rivalries as peripheral countries vie to capitalise on shifting balances of power. The conflict in Syria, for example, has become a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, it was Qatar that forged links with the Muslim Brotherhood in the hope of boosting its international sway (although it is trying to disavow them). Now, Riyadh – ever sceptical of Islamists – is throwing its considerable weight behind the generals.

More than anything, then, Egypt needs a disinterested broker. When EU foreign ministers meet tomorrow, it is this – more even than the aid budget – that must be top of the agenda.