If the army’s ousting of Egypt’s first elected president was the day that the country’s nascent democracy spluttered, the bloody clearing of Cairo’s protest camps this week was the moment that it died. Yet still the only possible solution is a political one.
The auspices were never good. When the forces of the deep state slunk back out of the shadows to topple Mohamed Morsi last month, the poster child of the Arab Spring took an unmistakable wrong turn. No matter that the Islamist president squandered his brief time in office, doing little to address Egypt’s debilitating economic problems and – worse – sowing division where he should have promoted unity. Mr Morsi was an elected leader, nonetheless; his summary dismissal, even at the bequest of many millions on the streets, made a mockery of democracy.
There was still a shred of hope, though. A swift political settlement was just about possible. Now, however, after a day of appalling violence that left more than 500, perhaps as many as 2,000, dead – the majority unarmed civilians shot down by soldiers – it is difficult not to despair.
Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is not blameless. Rejecting the (albeit tarnished) political process and stirring up public protest only exacerbated dangerous tensions. But the military’s response was beyond disproportionate and sends the country spiralling dangerously towards civil war.
With the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei – the Nobel laureate stepped down as vice-president citing his inability to “bear responsibility for decisions ... whose repercussions I dread” – the interim government has lost even the veneer of inclusivity. Meanwhile, although Cairo’s camps have been razed, Morsi supporters are as determined as ever. The Muslim Brotherhood is calling for more protests – to “bring down Egypt’s military coup” – and despite its appeal for peaceful means, several hundred Islamists attacked a government building in Giza yesterday.
There are three possibilities as to what happens next. One is repression. Another is war. The third is political settlement. That means all sides around the negotiating table, a swift return to the ballot box, and no cavilling at the outcome. It also means the international community doing more than making condemnatory noises while looking stoutly the other way. Active efforts must be made to broker peace.
The US, in particular, has much to do. The Obama administration made its displeasure felt yesterday by cancelling joint military exercises. Yet Washington still refuses to call a coup a coup, preferring the influence that goes with $1.3bn annual aid to Egypt’s military. It is high time that leverage is put to use. All support should now be withdrawn, pending free elections.
The transition from autocracy to democracy was never going to be easy. With the deep divisions in Egyptian society now sealed by blood, it has become harder still. But the alternatives are so much worse.