The pitfall that the Egyptian authorities find themselves in could have been avoided. There was no need to subject the Egyptian society’s security to this kind of polarization and of course there was no need for the accidents, injuries and deaths on all sides.
Egypt is riding a sizeable revolutionary wave. The country is caught up in the throes between currents disputing power; advocates of politicized religion on the one side and those supporting the civil state on the other. The regime governing the country assumed the presidency after a heated election where the final result was marginal, no doubt reflecting the extent of the existing division and polarization on the Egyptian political street, which in turn reflects the concerns, fears and complaints of the Egyptian people themselves.
The state, government and president should have heeded this situation before issuing the alarming, forceful, some might even say provocative, decrees. This move was seen as an act of bullying, an act of seizing and monopolizing power, and the people sensed the country was moving once again towards a dictatorship. After all, the Egyptians had just overthrown a regime that had monopolized power to the extent that it forced the people to rise up against it and remove the president from his position. This is not to mention the fundamental sensitivities harbored by the general populace towards the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and the age old political project that they are working towards.
Egypt is a country of heightened sensitivities these days. It is a Muslim country with the most prestigious religious authority in the Islamic world, namely al-Azhar, and yet a tense religious discourse is being fuelled. Youths are demonstrating in support of the president shouting: “our martyrs are in paradise whilst yours die in the fire”. One man even entered a mosque near the presidential palace, snatched the microphone and questioned the faith of the opposition, as if we were witnessing a battle between infidels and Muslims!
Mursi’s constitutional declaration contained many violations, both legally and technically. We are talking about an issue that has led to congestion and alarming concern in the hearts of Egyptians who were already sensitive. There was an official silence for a lengthy period as the street continued to be tense and the situation became inflamed. The ceiling of demands rose in an unprecedented manner, the wounded and dead fell, and the bloodshed increased. Then the president addressed his people with a vague, meaningless speech adding further tension to the street until the dialogue he had called for finally came and he was forced to revoke his constitutional declaration. However, Mursi maintained the referendum on the constitution, which was drafted in record time, whilst knowing that many Egyptians are calling for that to be abolished as well on the grounds that the proposed constitutional articles have not received adequate time and deliberation before being put to a referendum.
The issue now in Egypt is one of legitimacy, and legitimacy has many aspects. Did the president, with his decrees, violate what he is meant to protect and conserve? Thus can the legitimacy of the president now be challenged?
Egypt prides itself as a state of institutions and laws (despite reservations about the effectiveness of these institutions and laws) and this remains the main reference point. Thus any attempt to repeal this legacy is effectively a move towards the idea of autocracy and dictatorship. The people have a (fully justified) hypersensitivity because of previous negative experiences that have left a devastating impact on the Egyptian mindset, making the reaction of many these days towards the president’s decrees understandable.
President Mursi still has an opportunity, albeit a slim one, to rebuild bridges of trust with the people. The Arab world is watching the next steps with concern because the Egyptian disease may infect others. All we can do is ask God to protect us.