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Danger in Egypt

The military must end repression and set out the calendar for a return to democracy

Egypt is going through dangerous times. The military coup that last week brought down the president, Mohamed Morsi, has created an extremely difficult situation, underlined by the violence on the streets of several cities on Friday. The armed forces and other political actors will need to display great intelligence and caution if they are to bring the country back within a democratic process and avert a slide into a wider conflict and utter chaos.

The army’s route map is now being rolled out. On Friday the judge Adly Mansour, installed by the military as interim president, ordered that the Senate be dissolved, suspended the Constitution and prepared to form a government of national unity until fresh elections can be called. But reports on Saturday that Mohamed ElBaradei, the internationally reputed former head of the UN’s IAEA nuclear watchdog, had been appointed prime minister were scotched the following day by an official statement saying that consultations were still continuing. Meanwhile, Morsi and several other Muslim Brotherhood leaders are being held by the military, which has harshly repressed street protests against the coup.

The complexity of the situation goes some way to explaining the cautious nature of international reaction to these developments. This may not be a typical coup d’état, but such an intervention by the armed forces in any country is always bad news that should be condemned as such. Morsi was elected by a majority but he did not respect the rules of the democratic game. The Islamist president was not ousted solely by the military, but also by a popular protest movement that grew to become greater even than that which led to the end of Hosni Mubarak two years ago. Millions of Egyptians showed that they were not prepared to see their votes used to destroy democracy, as Morsi had begun to do with the aim of implanting an autocratic regime with a fundamentalist leaning.

International engagement

Unlike what happened in 2011, when the army tried to guide a democratic transition on its own, this time the military has been careful to gather support from the majority of Egypt’s political forces (including the Salafists, who are engaged in a power struggle with the Muslim Brothers), and from the country’s religious communities. The generals have also attempted to reassure the United States, the European Union and several Arab countries, with a guarantee that they will return power to the civilian sphere.

This pledge would enjoy greater credibility if an electoral calendar were laid out as soon as possible. The Muslim Brotherhood is a legitimate political force and cannot be excluded from this process. Egypt’s wounds lie open, but today, more than ever, it is vital to seek reconciliation. This new chapter in Egypt’s convulsive history since the fall of Mubarak also depends on the West’s involvement. Western apathy has previously left the way open for certain Gulf monarchies to kidnap the Arab Spring.

Ousting a leader chosen at the polls sets a terrible precedent and constitutes the first great failure for the Egyptian transition. But it does not necessarily certify the death of the process. The idea that the legacy from six decades of dictatorship in a country with such enormous needs could be resolved rapidly via a model transition has proved to be unrealistic.