In the wake of the second anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 revolution, divisions between opposition groups and the country’s Islamist-led government have left hundreds wounded and several dead. Meanwhile, a controversial court verdict in Port Said sent thousands to the streets and led President Morsi to place the area under a state of emergency. The increasing violence has raised questions over whether the divide between the government and opposition forces will continue to fissure to the point of civil war. While the situation in Egypt is dire and increasing violence remains a looming threat, the situation will not escalate to the point of civil war but the potential for continuing violence and economic and political instability remains a real concern.
Violence between opposition groups and the government has become frighteningly more frequent in Egypt, especially in the wake of the passage of the country’s new constitution in December. Since the anniversary of the revolution, Egypt has witnessed a number of troubling acts of violence and the government’s control over Port Said appears tenuous after a court ruling, dating back to the Port Said football massacre, sentenced 21 to death. Most recently, a man who was stripped and dragged through the streets before being loaded into an armored vehicle by riot police, first blamed protestors for his abuse, but later backtracked and said police were responsible for his injuries. Elsewhere, two protestors died as a result of injuries that the Egyptian Popular Current party, an opposition group, says were sustained as a result of police torture.
These events and the deeper-seated conflict stemming from dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned government have driven a wedge further between opposition forces and the government. While escalating violence is the most immediate concern, with signs of police brutality as well as vandalism and politically motivated attacks increasingly visible in the media, the real conflict remains political and economic in nature. On the political front, opposition groups have demonstrated that they are still committed to the political process and in some cases, talks to end the conflict, a sign that civil war is an unlikely scenario.
Today, political and economic issues remain at the forefront in the minds of opposition forces and political activists. Recent violence only serves to further inflame the existing conflicts between these forces but there are also a number of potential resolutions that will help steer Egypt through this extended transition period to a stable political and economic environment. The two principle concerns in the country are the constitution and the status of economic reforms and loans from the International Monetary Fund. While the constitution was passed by referendum, it was passed by a narrow margin and with low turnout. This reality reflects a divided and disenchanted population as well as real concerns with the content of the constitution. While court cases may decide the fate of the constitution in March, upcoming parliamentary elections, in which opposition forces have shown signs of uniting and presenting an opportunity to capitalize on frustration with the ever-popular Muslim Brotherhood party, have great potential to satisfy the political ambitions of a large portion of Egyptian society and the main source of opposition frustration today.
In more general terms, the justice system has taken controversial positions, including in the Port Said case and will also rule on police brutality charges related to the violence following the anniversary of the revolution. Egypt’s courts have played a deciding role in a number of political disputes since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and continue to have an important role in the country’s transition. The decision of the court in the constitution case among others has the potential to greatly destabilize or satisfy the country.
Lastly, and arguably most important to the average Egyptian are economic issues, namely the state of the economy and the controversial IMF loan package that would inject much needed cash into government coffers, but also hinges on reforms that could send millions into the streets. One issue that has historically led to major protests is raising bread prices and subsidies are indeed on the chopping block as Morsi’s government negotiates with the IMF. Many Egyptians are profoundly tired of the protests that have hampered economic rebound, especially in terms of tourism and foreign investment, not to mention paralyzing the country’s already limited commerce and would therefore welcome a resolution to political dispute that would lead to economic growth. However, passing a reform package that includes cuts to needed subsidies would be extraordinarily unpopular in the short-term.
Ultimately, the need for political stability is inextricable from the environment necessary for economic recovery. Egyptians understand this and there is a strong desire for political cooperation despite the tension surrounding key issues. The fact remains though that Egypt lacks a functioning government and that is at least partly responsible for political disputes being played out in the streets rather than in parliament.
Meanwhile, Egypt has received the first of 20 F-16s scheduled to be delivered this year by the U.S. as part of the annual $1.2 billion in military aid. The predicament faced by President Morsi, who finds himself unable to raise the price of bread that millions depend on, the looming political instability and economic stagnation represents a discrepancy of interests and actions on behalf of the U.S. If we want to support peace and stability in Egypt, that $1.2 billion would buy a lot of bread.