The second anniversary of the fall of Hosni Mubarak has been marked by widespread unrest across Egypt. Declarations of emergency law have led to the defiance of curfews en masse. The number of fatalities has climbed past 50 and incidents of rape and sexual harassment mount. If, in 2011, Egypt’s was a story of hope triumphant, achieved through civil disobedience and solidarity across class, gender, and religious lines, the revolution now appears to be entering a new, more violent, phase. When self-styled Black Bloc anti-government militants — who embrace distinctive attire and urban guerilla tactics — burst onto the scene a week ago, the stakes rose even higher. Though a Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson has denied any intention to launch a counter-vigilante “Islamist White Block,” the danger of escalation is evident : Egypt stands on the edge of an abyss.
The anger — among leftists, liberals, Christians, some Salafists, and, above all, the urban poor — has two sources. The first is political, the perception that the Muslim Brotherhood-led government has disenfranchised the people from their own revolution. Detractors are livid that President Mohamed Morsi has claimed extraordinary powers and pushed through a flawed constitution. He has made key appointments, like that of chief prosecutor, based on Brotherhood affiliation rather than on merit. Figures involved in atrocities against martyrs of the revolution have been absolved. Key institutions of the old regime, like the Ministry of the Interior, have not been reformed. Arguing that Morsi is acting not like the president of Egypt but like a puppet of the Murshid — the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood — thousands marched in cities across Egypt on Friday to denounce “Murshid rule.”
These political grievances might have been defused had the government delivered on “social justice” — the rallying cry of the revolution. Instead, Egypt’s already dire economic situation has worsened. According to the Egyptian Food Observatory, 86 percent of the population cannot meet its basic needs — food, shelter, and clothing — which is 12 percent more than last June. Basic services from garbage disposal and electricity to transportation, education, and health care remain abysmal. Tourism, long a major source of employment, has dried up. Fitch, the credit rating agency, has downgraded the country’s rating, as the currency wobbles and foreign reserves dwindle to some $13.6 billion — barely enough to pay for gas and food subsidies that may be the last defense against a full-fledged insurrection.
Just six months ago, many gave Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Freedom Party the benefit of the doubt because they had more institutional capacity than any other entity untainted by the Mubarak regime. Morsi delivered on several fronts. He brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, winning accolades from Time magazine as the “most important man in the Middle East.” At home, he was lauded for an early move to subdue the army, although the new constitution by and large has restored the military to its position under Mubarak.
It is one thing to effectively mobilize as a quasi-clandestine and rigidly hierarchical fraternity with a missionary agenda. It is quite another to develop the political acumen and flexibility necessary to govern a diverse country of 80 million people that faces intractable economic and social problems as it transitions to democracy using dysfunctional state machinery inherited from the old regime. Having failed in the eyes of opponents to deliver on transitional and social justice, and stinging from charges of incompetence, the tight-knit Brotherhood has further closed ranks. Fearing that losing power will set it back years as a political force, the government seems to be bracing for a tooth-and-nail fight using all the tools of the Mubarak era : partisan appointments, emergency laws, and the alleged deployment of thugs against protesters.
To prevent his country from plunging into chaos, Morsi must open up space between his presidential authority and the Brotherhood. If resolving the economic situation is a long-term project, he can at least try to rebuild what has been lost on the political front : trust. This can happen if Morsi agrees to devolve the powers of the president and involve key elements from the opposition in managing the transition process. The strongest resistance to power-sharing is likely to come from the “Guidance Bureau” of the Brotherhood. It needs to understand that a monopolization of power also means a monopolization of responsibility. Without a devolution of power, the Brotherhood alone will pay the price of failure.