For the second time since 2011, vast numbers of Egyptians are demanding the resignation of their president. The Arab world’s most populous nation does need urgent change, but it doesn’t need another revolution.
That’s not to say the millions of Egyptians protesting in Cairo and elsewhere are incorrect in their assessment of President Mohamed Mursi. His presidency so far has been, in a word, disastrous. During his year in power, Mursi has failed not only to elaborate a plausible economic program but also to govern for all Egyptians. Protesting for more effective and inclusive policies is one thing. Protesting for the removal of a popularly elected leader is quite another.
The Tamarud, or Rebel, movement, which claims to have gathered 22 million signatures to support its anti-government cause, has issued an ultimatum for Mursi to step aside by July 2. Now Egypt’s generals, heeding the call of some protesters, have stepped in, giving the two sides 48 hours to come to agreement.
Mursi’s only significant success came early in his presidency, when he outmaneuvered the military and sidelined the institution as a force in civilian politics. This important achievement could be undone if Mursi is ejected from power. Generals -- as Pakistanis, Turks and others will attest -- can do more damage to democratic and economic progress than an incompetent civilian leader. They are also harder to remove.
Any Egyptian president will face enormous challenges in trying to fix what is broken in the economy and in trying to lead a divided society. Islamists and their well-organized followers will feel angry and disenfranchised if Mursi is deposed. They would undoubtedly organize new protests and make new demands for the resignation of the next president. The precedent would be set.
The Tamarud protests can be positive. So far they have been mostly peaceful. The 12 or more deaths that have occurred, mainly in attacks on offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, should serve as a warning of what may come if neither side compromises. Mursi and the Brotherhood underestimated their opposition; it shouldn’t make the same mistake.
The first steps must come from Mursi. So far he has proposed dialogue, which is good but nowhere near enough. One way forward would be for the president to dismiss the Cabinet and offer to negotiate a new transitional government with ministers from the significant political parties. He should commit in advance to approving a prime minister who wouldn’t be an Islamist, creating a promise of balance.
At the same time, Mursi should set a timetable for new parliamentary elections and a process to create a genuinely cross-party committee to amend the constitution. In essence, Mursi needs to acknowledge that his 3.4 percentage point victory last year was a signal to rule by consensus, not by fiat.
The U.S. and other governments can help by restating the principle they supported in the 2011 revolution: the right to free and fair elections and the construction of effective democratic institutions. Two years ago, the U.S. wasn’t against Mubarak or for the Muslim Brotherhood. Nor should it now back the military, or the old regime that has joined with protesters, or the collection of secularist parties in the National Salvation Front.
U.S. support should focus on principles of a free vote and a balanced constitutional order. That should be made especially clear to the military, as it decides how and whether to intervene.
What counts now for Egypt above all else is speed in getting its economy on track. A $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund aid package can help unlock the domestic and foreign investment that Egypt needs to create jobs and reduce its crippling 13 percent unemployment rate, which was a focus of the protests two years ago.
A prerequisite for the aid, however, is ripping off the Band-Aid of subsidies that now consume too much of the government’s budget. Even with payments to reimburse the needy, this will be unpopular and may be impossible for Mursi to carry out in the current climate. All the more reason for him to reach out, form a genuine coalition government and share responsibility for the pain.
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