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European Council on Foreign Relations: Navigating Egypt's Political Crisis

December 11, 2012


Absent a muscular effort by political leaders to contain the crisis, Egypt could be heading into a new season of political violence.

Contours of the Crisis, and Its Players

Egypt is in the grip of its worst political crisis since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed two years ago, and shifts in the three-way balance of power between Islamists, secularists and the military make the outcome more difficult to predict. The on-going crisis has dramatically increased the likelihood of protracted political and social instability. Violent street clashes between supporters and opponents of the six-month-old administration of President Muhammad Morsi have claimed eight lives and left hundreds wounded. The sacking of a number of offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, allegations of organized attacks against opposition protesters, as well as the uncompromising and increasingly belligerent rhetoric from both sides suggests the worst is yet to come. Absent a muscular effort by political leaders to contain the crisis, Egypt could be heading into a new season of political violence.

Some of the political leaders on both sides who initially staked out maximalist positions have begun to show more caution, but may lack the political authority or the political will to calm the rising anger of their supporters. In the meantime, the military is sending ambiguous messages and appears to want to remain above the fray, even as each side attempts to drag it back in — and in doing so is willing to give it concessions almost all factions opposed only a year ago.

The crisis is driven by a deeper conflict over the identity and nature of the post-Mubarak Egyptian state, and more immediately over the distribution of power within it, but its immediate focus has been the process by which a new constitution will be adopted. The target of much of the outrage of the past two weeks has been President Morsi's assumption, in his November 22 decree, of absolute executive power until such time as a new constitution has been enacted. It was compounded by his decision to rush the approval of a draft constitution, in a marathon December 1 session by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. On December 8, Morsi rescinded elements of his decree that had awarded him unfettered executive power and allowed him to ignore judicial decisions, and explained that in the event that the "no" vote prevails in the December 15 referendum on the draft constitution, a new Constituent Assembly would be chosen in direct elections. But the new announcement failed to repair the deep distrust created by Morsi's actions. And the president refused to heed the opposition's demand for a postponement of the referendum, which is scheduled for Saturday —leaving little opportunity to contain the immediate phase of the crisis.

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