On Sunday, widespread rallies and gatherings took place in Tahir Square, in other parts of Cairo, and in the provinces of Egypt, as protests calling for President Muhammad Morsi's resignation culminated as planned on the anniversary of the inauguration of this first post-Mubarak president. Egypt, one of the key sites of the Arab Spring, is again at a crossroads. Political violence between supporters and opponents of the government had already plagued Egyptian cities before the big day, leading to the deaths including that of an American. While the current turmoil is concerning, I am confident that democratic transition in Egypt will continue — albeit on a rocky path — and in a few years when we look back to the events of 2013 the country will be a maturing liberal democracy.
The size and the intensity of Sunday's protest are breathtaking. While media sources have not yet given an estimate on how many people attended, using the vague term "hundreds of thousands" instead, among the marchers "tens of thousands" were protesting at the presidential palace alone. Their complaints against Morsi were twofold: the president's attempt to wield dictatorial powers and his inability to address economic problems. The main group involved in anti-Morsi rallies is the National Salvation Front, composed of liberals, secularists and moderates whose leaders include prominent politician Mohammad ElBaradei — while a youth organization Tamarod circulated a petition demanding Morsi to resign and claimed 22 million signatories. The opposition groups have stated their campaign would not cease until Morsi leaves office. Meanwhile, Morsi's backers, who largely come from the Muslim Brotherhood, held counter-rallies and there were some sporadic clashes between them and protesters, with a death toll of five — as of this time — and hundreds injured.
On both counts, their grievances are legitimate. Since taking the helm, Morsi has disappointed and alarmed many Egyptians by disregarding free speech and civil liberties. A comedian was arrested for satirizing the president, while this month a prominent activist was for condemning Morsi's security measures. Earlier this year he declared Mubarak-style emergency laws allowing indefinite detention without trial, and in the end of last year he declared his decrees beyond judicial review, only to back down after eruption of massive protests. Under Morsi, the economy has not improved either; with unemployment climbing to 13% while inflation stays high. As a candidate Morsi made a lot of promises to liberalize markets and increase social protection that he failed to keep. With a record like this, it is no wonder that many Egyptians see Morsi as a Mubarak redux.
While Morsi indicated he would not step down, up until today he has largely taken a hands-off approach, though what will happen later is up in the air. His spokesperson gave conciliatory statements and said protesters were within their right to free expression. There are reports, however, showing behind the doors Morsi suggested employing emergency laws again if protests were not contained. The defense minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also warned that the military would intervene if things get out of hand.
These talks of forceful interventions are worrisome, for they may portend two equally ugly outcomes. The first scenario is that the armed forces, in the name of restoring order, may form a junta in the style of Argentine dictators. The other would be Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood stamping out the protest along with its liberal participants to usher in an Iran-style theocracy.
While either scenario would be tragic and bloody, both are unlikely. In the past two years the Egyptian people, particularly the youth, have shown their resilience and resolve not to tolerate another Mubarak in a uniform or a turban. They have reacted swiftly to signs of power-grab, by both Morsi's government and the provisional military authority preceding it. And each time the power has retreated. Back in 2011, soon after the Mubarak regime fell, one of my classmates said he was worried that the military would capitalize on people's weariness to hold onto the government forever. But it turned out differently: when Egyptians felt Mohamed Tantawi and his generals were to do that, they took to the streets and the military eventually let elections take place and expedite the hand-over to civil authorities, which would then be led by the electoral victor, Morsi. And only a few months into Morsi's presidency, people realized he evidently had not learned the lesson. Protests then forced Morsi to withdraw from his efforts to end-run the courts. The last thing Egyptians would see is a revolution squandered, where their fellow citizens died overthrowing one authoritarian and incompetent leader only to pave ways for another to be installed. They cannot afford to allow another individual entrench his or her power to become a full-fledged Mubarak II, and any actions by Morsi to, or perceived by the people to, enlarge powers of his government would provoke great suspicion and unrest.
The past two years have shown us the underestimated democratic fervor of the courageous Egyptian people, which led me to see the future there with some optimism. One likely and desirable outcome would be Morsi bowing to internal pressures from officials and the military to resign, much like how these pressures eventually led to Mubarak's ouster. New elections would be called, and this time due to Morsi's disrepute the Muslim Brotherhood would fare poorly, allowing a progressive candidate to prevail. Or, Morsi may give significant concessions and be permitted to serve in a much-weakened manner, possibly by handing powers to the prime minister. Either of these endings will allow the country to gradually become a stable democracy and serve as an example for other countries in transition.