The spate of violent incidents in Cairo and the Suez Canal cities of Port Said and Suez in the last week of January has highlighted the increasingly fractured state of Egyptian society and exposed the failings of key institutions, in particular the presidency, the judiciary and the forces of law and order. The president, Mohamed Morsi, is seeking to engage all political forces in a national dialogue, but progress on this front is likely to be volatile. Meanwhile, a $4.8 billion deal with the IMF appears far off as the government’s commitment to introducing difficult economic reforms has waned further in the current political climate.
Morsi cut short a visit to Europe after spending just one day in Berlin, Germany, on January 30, and is seeking to promote a national dialogue between all political forces to chart a way out of the crisis. One of the central issues that Morsi has to address is the perception among his opponents that the main purpose of his presidency is to enable the Muslim Brotherhood to take control of the entire state apparatus. This has caused concern because of the nature of the Brotherhood’s ideology and the shortage of people qualified for such tasks in the organization’s ranks.
Verdict sparks violence
Violence in Port Said started on January 26 after a court in Cairo delivered its initial verdicts in a trial of defendants charged with involvement in the killing of 72 people, mainly opposing fans at Port Said’s Al Masry football stadium in February 2012. The court sentenced 21 defendants to death.
“[Remarks by Egypt's defense minister] could indicate that the army is gearing up to play a more vigorous role in maintaining law and order….” – Pratibha Thaker, Economist Intelligence Unit
The verdict followed days of agitation in Cairo by supporters of Al Ahly, the team whose fans had been attacked. Hardcore Al Ahly fans, known as “Ultras”, blocked traffic on bridges across the Nile and disrupted services on the Cairo metro to press their demands for stiff sentences to be handed down. The court has yet to publish the evidence on which it based its convictions, and relatives of the defendants claimed that many had been arrested merely because they were well known Al Masry fans and that the court had been influenced by the Ultras pressure. During protests immediately after the verdict by relatives outside the Port Said jail where the defendants were held shots were fired from the crowd, and police guarding the prison fired back. More than 30 people were killed in this incident and in a similar one the following day. Some reports suggested that the initial shooting at the jail was carried out by relatives of imprisoned gang members seeking to use the anger at the football verdicts to cause a mass breakout.
Morsi further stoked the resentment in Port Said when he spoke on national television on January 27 praising the efforts of the police to maintain order and urging citizens to respect the verdict of the court. In particular, his defense of the court was deemed hypocritical given his own actions in November 2012 to overrule the judiciary and the efforts of Muslim Brotherhood activists to disrupt the operations of the Supreme Constitutional Court. Morsi also announced the imposition of a curfew on the Canal cities, including Suez and Ismailiya, where a number of people had been killed in clashes with police following attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices, and called for a national dialogue. The curfew was only patchily respected, and the government has since limited it to three hours a day from 2 am to 5 am.
Call for unity
The main non-Islamist opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front (NSF), initially refused to be involved in the dialogue, and called for Morsi to step down. However, it later agreed to join the discussions, calling for the formation of a government of national unity. Morsi has rejected this proposal, and has insisted that the current government, which is a mix of technocrats and Muslim Brotherhood-aligned ministers, will stay in place until after the election of the lower house of parliament, which is scheduled to take place in April at the earliest. The NSF is also pressing Morsi to lift the curbs he has placed on media freedom and to sanction a review of contentious articles of the recently passed constitution.
Nour, the main party representing the hardline Salafi tendency, has welcomed the offer of national dialogue. Nour and other Salafi parties that have split from it have an excellent opportunity to bolster their political position in the election. They may do so by taking advantage of the resentment at the Muslim Brotherhood among pious Egyptians and through exploiting the disillusionment of non-Islamists with the performance of the NSF.
Talk of collapse
General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the defense minister and commander of the armed forces, issued a statement on January 29 warning that the persistent divisions between political forces could lead to the collapse of the state. His remarks were not taken as a threat to stage a coup, given the uncomfortable experience of the military command when it ran the country in the 18 months after the former president, Hosni Mubarak, stepped down in February 2011. However, they could indicate that the army is gearing up to play a more vigorous role in maintaining law and order, in light of the shortcomings of the police.
The recent political turbulence in Egypt has had a damaging impact on investor confidence, and has resulted in further delays in the government’s plans to introduce economic reforms as part of an agreement with the IMF. The government has started fresh discussions with the Fund about its proposed $4.8 billion stand-by credit, and is seeking to revise some of the core targets that were included in a staff-level agreement announced on November 20, 2012. The government wants to delay or dilute some of the measures that were agreed for raising new revenue and trimming spending on subsidies. Even if the IMF consents to an easing of the terms of the deal, the political atmosphere in Egypt is so toxic that street protests are likely to meet any action by the government that could be interpreted as an attack on living standards.
This post has been authored exclusively for MEV by Economist Intelligence Unit.
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Pratibha Thaker is regional director, Middle East & Africa for the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).