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As Morsi's Presidency Ebbs Away Egypt Is Dangerously Divided

04/07/2013 10:30 BST | Updated 02/09/2013 10:12 BST
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By Michelle Pace, University of Birmingham

"Egypt is split" is how many Egyptians describe the current crisis rippling through the country. Clashes are intensifying and protesters are dying. Journalists report on pro and anti-Morsi demonstrations, the battle between liberal secularists and Islamists (symbolised by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood) or the fight between secularism and religion in Egypt.

One rally was fired on by unidentified gunmen in a frightening indication that the popular protest against 12 months of Morsi's government may descend into violence with unthinkable consequences for the Arab world's largest democracy.

And yet, one Brotherhood official described the current protests as a healthy sign of democracy. Morsi himself, in an interview with The Guardian, said that protests are legitimate in that: "There can be demonstrations and people expressing their opinions."

It is a fact that, across the Middle East and North Africa, the so-called "Arab Spring" has highlighted the relevance of the public sphere, an area in social life where individuals can come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems and through that discussion influence political action.

A divided country

The fault-lines in Egypt are not new; for decades, Egyptians have been divided into two public spheres that define both the political and the socio-religious domains: the secular-liberal public sphere and a public sphere largely dominated by Islamic thought. (It should be noted that there is a third camp looming in the background which re-emerged in the protests of 2011 and over the past week or so: the army).

So why are Egyptians protesting en masse once again?

It is important to go back to 2011 and review the circumstances that gave rise to Egypt's protest movement in the Arab Spring: revulsion at the corrupt and oppressive nature of the Mubarak regime, as well as a desire for decent living conditions and an effective and democratic constitution which gives Egyptians some control over their rulers. These factors built pressure and led to the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

When Morsi assumed office on June 30 last year he had a clear mandate from the people who elected him: real freedom of speech, justice, economic and social dignity, an end to police brutality and the state of emergency laws.

In the eyes of today's protesters Morsi has failed in these urgent tasks, particularly in dealing with an ailing economy and assuaging fears about the real intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has also failed, in their eyes, to build consensus as he has only paid lip-service to opposing views. The Morsi Meter measures popular approval of Morsi's performance at just 39%.

Democratic transitions are not straightforward processes and Egypt's revolution is a major episode in the story of the continuing growth of civil resistance as a force in politics that autocratic regimes simply cannot ignore. In 2011, Mubarak was toppled in just 19 days. Two years on and the main difference is that Morsi was popularly elected. One of the main messages you hear from protesters Tahrir Square is that they voted for Morsi, but he hasn't lived up to the promises he made to get him elected.

Morsi's mistakes

What is clear is that there is a growing disconnect between what Morsi understands as "constitutional legitimacy" and what the people and the opposition consider to be the legitimacy of Morsi's rule. Morsi himself has admitted that it was a mistake to force through constitutional changes last November that gave him new powers and put him beyond the bounds of judicial supervision. This was read by protesters as a clearly dictatorial move.

As well as seizing new powers, Morsi is widely criticised for filling government posts with Islamists which has led to Egypt's continuing polarisation. Morsi however, insists that, as records show, opposition leaders have in fact been offered top jobs in government but repeatedly turned them down.

Thus the reality of Egyptian politics on the ground is that neither party accepts the other side's legitimacy.

President running out of options

Morsi's offer of a compromise, including the formation of a national government and constitutional change has already been rejected by the army as observers are already calling time on Morsi's presidency - saying things have gone too far for him to continue in power. The options for him are either to be pushed from power or to do a deal with the army which allows him to resign.

Both the army and the Tamarod opposition movement have published their own "road maps", each of which calls for Morsi to go and an interim arrangement. The army's plan calls for an interim military leader, while Tamarod's calls for a new temporary president and prime minister and the election of a new body to draw up a fresh constitution within 30 days.

In the longer term, Egypt's path towards democracy highlights the need to follow a successful campaign of civil resistance with an effective programme of governmental and societal change involving a wide range of partners. The big challenge will be to prevent a descent into violent chaos in the event of a stand-off between the army and Morsi's supporters and the MB. This will require co-operation with the armed forces, but most importantly a sincere willingness by all three parties involved - the government, the opposition and the army - to accept compromise.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation. Read the original article.