Jerusalem Post, 12/2:
Recent days have seen a further sharp deterioration in Egypt. Against a background of economic crisis, Salafi Islamist groups are increasingly assertive. The Salafis are engaged in the violent harassment of Egyptian Copts and secular oppositionists, and in ongoing attempts to pressurize the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Mursi to accede to their policy demands through public agitation and disorder.
The government, meanwhile, finds itself caught in an inescapable dilemma over economic and social policy. Foreign currency reserves are running dangerously low at $13.4 billion – 60% below their December 2010 level. Egypt is currently seeking a loan of $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund. But the conditions likely to accompany the granting of these funds will exacerbate the social discontent in Egypt, to the benefit of the government’s opponents.
In the latest escalation of anti-Christian harassment, two people died this week after an Islamist mob attacked Copts leaving a funeral in Cairo. The funeral itself was for four Copts shot dead in the town of Khosous near the Egyptian capital last week.
The unrest following the funeral began when Egyptian Muslims threw petrol bombs at mourners chanting anti-government slogans. The Copts later accused the authorities of failing to protect their community. They noted that police fired tear gas into the compound of St Mark’s Cathedral in Cairo, where mourners had sought shelter from the violence.
Coptic Patriarch Tadrawos II later issued a public statement condemning the government’s failure to protect the Copts and describing Egyptian society as ‘collapsing.’
The increasingly vociferous Salafis, meanwhile, are forcing the government’s hand in other areas. On Sunday, Tourism Minister Hisham Zezoua announced the cancellation of recently renewed tourist flights from Iran. No reason for the decision was given. But the Mursi government’s u-turn came after Salafi demonstrators attacked the home of a senior Iranian diplomat resident in Cairo.
The demonstrators chanted anti-Shia slogans, and attempted to place a Syrian rebel flag on the gate of the diplomat’s residence. Riot police narrowly prevented a storming of the building.
The Egyptian government’s apparent helplessness in the face of Salafi provocations, and its instinct to appease them, represents only one side of Mursi’s woes.
The secular and leftist opposition is also increasingly active, and is similarly turning toward civil disobedience as its preferred means of protest. The National Salvation Front, a coalition of secular parties, is demanding the formation of a new ‘neutral and credible’ government to oversee parliamentary elections set to take place later this year.
The April 6 youth movement, a remnant of the youth of Tahrir Square who so excited the world’s media in 2011, remain active at ground level. The movement supported Mursi’s election, but has now turned against him. 44 people were injured in ‘day of rage’ protests organized by the movement in the Cairo area this week.
Supporters of April 6 contend that Mursi is not the real leader of the country. Rather, they assert that the real decisions are in the hands of Mohamed al-Badie, the ‘Supreme Guide’ of the Muslim Brotherhood movement.
Against the backdrop of ongoing unrest, an IMF team is in Egypt, to negotiate the terms of a loan of $4.8 billion to Egypt. The negotiations are deadlocked.
The IMF wants the government to enact budget cuts, including on energy subsidies, in order to secure the loan. The government, facing growing unrest, rising prices and fuel shortages, fears that to do so would be to add fuel to the flames already threatening it.
Qatar, which has already given $5 billion to Egypt, this week announced a further grant of $3 billion. Qatar, as the key regional backer of the Muslim Brotherhood, evidently feels a responsibility toward the beleaguered Mursi government. But even Qatari generosity will only go so far, and cannot offer a long term solution.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt appears caught in an inescapable dilemma. Conforming to international financial requirements will require cuts that will exacerbate already growing unrest. Refusal to do so will preserve the current situation of economic dysfunction – which will also fuel the growing disorder.
Where is all this heading? A recent article in the Atlantic by Eric Trager quoted activists of the April 6 youth movement privately admitting that they are hoping for a return to military rule. The activists said that a short period of rule by the army would be preferable to the current growing anarchy.
Of course, Egypt’s last short period of military rule began in 1952, and ended in 2011.
Another possibility is that the Muslim Brotherhood themselves may seek in the months ahead to use the security organs of the state to crack down harder on the growing resistance to their rule. They waited after all, more than 80 years for their moment in power. They will not willingly concede to its early termination.
At the present time, there are no indications that the military are contemplating a return to power. Presumably, the generals are for the moment happy to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to take responsibility for their own failures. This may change in the period ahead, if the situation deteriorates further.
But the fact that it is regarded as a possibility, and even a desirable one, by elements among the very forces that spearheaded the revolution against Hosni Mubarak, is perhaps the single most telling indication of the current state of affairs in Egypt.
This summarises very neatly the travails of a backward, poorly-educated society with limited natural resources and a high birth rate. It makes you wonder how it’s going to end. Not well, I suspect.