Egypt is undergoing an eerie replay of events two years ago.
For almost a week, rioting youths in central Cairo have been pelting riot police with rocks and bottles, and the police respond with volleys of tear gas. Like the mass demonstrations that deposed longstanding dictator Hosni Mubarak, these riots threaten the government of Mohammed Morsi, an unknown until he became the presidential candidate of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was elected with 51 percent of the vote, a margin that would indicate he should move cautiously in dealing with protests and the political opposition. But he used Egypt’s convoluted electoral process to push though Islamist-backed measures and rewrite the constitution to favor Islamic-backed law.
Little of this was popular with Egypt’s largely secular population. But, as so often happens, a totally unrelated event – like the suicide of the fruit seller that launched the Arab Spring in Tunisia – sent the mobs into the street and crystallized the opposition to the Morsi government.
There is a longstanding rivalry between Cairo and the cities along the Suez Canal. A soccer riot last year between teams from Cairo and from Port Said left 74 people dead.
The government had its hands full with riots in Cairo and Suez marking the two-year anniversary of the demonstrations that ultimately ousted Mubarak. Then, on Saturday, a court condemned 21 Port Said fans to death for their role in the soccer riot, bringing angry demonstrators into that city’s streets.
Maybe Morsi felt he had no choice, but the one he made may have been the worst possible: On Sunday, he imposed a one-month state of emergency in the three cities and surrounding provinces, giving the police the power to arrest at will and detain people indefinitely without charge. This is the same hated law that Mubarak governed under with indefinite extensions.
This brought the rioters out in even greater force. They demanded that Morsi appoint a national unity government, scrap the Islamic provisions in the new constitution and join in a power-sharing arrangement with the opposition.
Morsi has promised to honor the peace treaty with Israel, has cooperated in bringing some control to the border with Gaza and has gone after terrorist bases in the Sinai. But transcripts of grossly anti-Semitic remarks he made two years ago have turned up and not endeared him to the U.S. Congress, which is mulling the huge annual aid packet to Egypt.
Unless Morsi cuts a deal with the opposition, lightens up on the emergency decrees and makes nice with the U.S., he’s about out of options. And the demonstrations still spread.
A top Egyptian political scientist, Moataz Abdel-Fattah, this weekend told The New York Times, “There is going to be chaos for some time to come.” Sadly, he’s probably right.