As Violent Protests, Military Ultimatum Rock Egypt Again, What Does The Opposition Want?

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    Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi take part in a protest demanding that Mursi resign at Tahrir Square in Cairo July 1, 2013.
  • Egypt 1July2013 women
    Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi take part in a protest demanding that Mursi resign at Tahrir Square in Cairo July 1, 2013.
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At least 16 people have died and hundreds have been wounded over the past two days as demonstrators in Egypt protest the administration of President Mohammed Morsi.

It has been more than two years since autocratic President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in an Arab Spring revolution, spurring a national election that saw Morsi take office in mid-2012. Many of the same people who rallied to unseat Mubarak are once again taking to the streets, unhappy that the progress they once fought for has yet to be realized.

On Monday, demonstrators stormed the headquarters of the ruling Freedom and Justice Party in Cairo. In response to the worsening violence, the Egyptian military said that it would assert its control and implement a “road map” if the situation was not resolved in 48 hours.

These are tense times in Cairo and across the country as violence once again tears at the fabric of society. Two years since a history-making revolution, Egypt’s future is still up in the air, and questions remain as to the opposition’s ultimate goal.

Another Big Takedown

For demonstrators in Cairo, the president’s ouster has become the primary cause and the rallying cry. But this goal is complicated by the legitimacy of Morsi’s election to office.

Supporters of the administration rightly argue that Morsi was democratically elected by the people of Egypt. He won a slim plurality of votes in the first round of voting in May 2012, and a slim majority over his closest contender Ahmed Shafik in a runoff vote the next month.

Significantly, Cairo -- the home base of the opposition movement in 2011 -- voted for Shafik over Morsi in 2012, as did several densely populated communities along the Nile River. But those votes were outnumbered by Islamist-leaning ballots from throughout the country, and Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, an arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, carried the day.

While many Arab Spring revolutionaries were disappointed that their efforts had not yielded the type of government they had sought, there was still room for optimism that Morsi would govern with an eye to secular values and minority rights. But the new president smashed those hopes when he temporarily assumed extra-judicial powers late last year in an attempt to rush the passage of a new constitution that secularists criticized for being too Islamist.

Many of this week’s demonstrators hope that an ouster of Morsi might lead to an election that favors a more secular candidate, as well as a redrafting of the national constitution to place more of an emphasis on minority rights.

It’s The Economy, Morsi!

Politics isn’t the only thing driving the opposition in Cairo and across the country. For many protesters, it’s all about bread and butter -- and fuel.

Unemployment in Egypt has surpassed 13 percent, and at least a quarter of the population lives in poverty. Aid from partners like Qatar has helped to keep the country afloat, but currency reserves are dwindling. Foreign investors are shying away from the country and negotiations for a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund have stalled for months. Inflation is skyrocketing, making weak paychecks even less capable of covering the cost of living for many Egyptians.

And then there’s the traffic, made worse by long lines at gas stations as citizens rush to stock up on fuel amid worsening shortages. Citizens wait for hours to fill their tanks, causing gridlock on city streets and aggravating tensions.

Morsi has done his best to decry oil smuggling operations and ease foreign and domestic concerns about Egypt’s fuel crisis, but the problem has deep roots that go back to the Mubarak administration. One sticky issue is the existence of fuel subsidies, which eat up government revenues and encourage consumption of shrinking supplies. International analysts argue that the program is counterproductive, but the government is loath to remove the subsidies since doing so would further enflame public dissent.

The president’s failure to transform the national economy hasn’t helped his popularity, but it is worth noting that the fiscal situation has been deeply flawed for many years. There is no easy solution to Egypt’s economic problems, but protesters hope that a new leader might at least turn the page on this tumultuous chapter in Egypt’s transition, ultimately engendering stability and attracting investment.

Interim Caretakers

If Morsi steps down, it will fall to a still-undetermined entity to manage the transition toward a new government. One possible candidate for that job is the military, which performed a similar role after the fall of Mubarak.

Under the old regime, the police and the military were known for suppression of dissent and human rights violations. One of the goals of the 2011 revolution was to reform the security system so that it would be more beholden to the people. But a strange thing happened when Morsi took office; the armed forces viewed him with suspicion, and those members of the public who opposed the new president began to see the army and the police as potential allies. On Monday, one of the chants that rose from demonstrators was one of solidarity with the armed forces: “The people and the army are one hand.”

Plenty of suspicion still surrounds Egypt’s security forces, and many protesters resist the idea of a military intervention. Some argue that the transition should be managed by opposition figures, though this might be problematic as anti-Morsi groups are diverse in their aims.

Yet another option would see a temporary leader emerge from the judiciary system, which has maintained a measure of independence since even before the overthrow of Mubarak. Indeed, the constitution mandates that Maher el-Baheiry, head of the constitutional court, take the helm temporarily if Morsi steps down.

Either way, big changes are in order if Morsi can be persuaded to relinquish his post. Egypt’s next big question is whether another leader would be able to deliver the progress necessary to satisfy the dissenters’ demands.

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