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Will Egypt Reach a Consensus?

Nervana Mahmoud writes that Egypt needs to achieve a so-far elusive consensus to avoid collapse.
A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi gestures with a national flag at riot police during clashes along Qasr Al Nil bridge leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo January 28, 2013. A man was shot dead on Monday in a fifth day of violence in Egypt that has killed 50 people and prompted the Islamist president to declare a state of emergency in an attempt to end a wave of unrest sweeping the Arab world's biggest nation. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE

There was something almost ecstatic about Egypt during its uprising against Mubarak. A nation that was once dismissed as old and submissive had risen up against its dictator and managed to do it in style. It was a perfect political tale, and it’s no wonder that hopeful descriptives like “spring” and “awakening” flooded the media. Two years later, however, the scene in Egypt could not be more different from that ebullient time. The forces that were once united against Mubarak have turned out to be a coalition of enemies that has disintegrated. Instead, they are now fighting a dirty war to dominate the political scene.

Egypt’s current political chaos has to be seen within the perspective of its contemporary history. Despite its different phases and themes, there was one prevailing conception that was consistently shared by the country through each successive leadership regime. All Egyptian rulers, from Muhammad Ali to current President Mohammed Morsi, have perceived local Egyptians as falling into three subgroups: the loyal, the opponents and the “ignorant.” The apolitical general public (generally known as the Kanaba Party) has always been viewed as ignorant of its own best interests.

Amr Ibn Al-As, the Arab conqueror of Egypt, allegedly described Egyptians by saying, “Their loyalties are always to the winner.” His statement has lingered in the minds of each of Egypt’s leaders. This belief translated into a political game composed of a mixture of submission and seduction. The leaders of Egypt learned to start their tenure by enforcing loyalties, crushing opponents and seducing the public before embarking on any real governance.

When the new game of democracy came into town, the children of oppression were not creative enough to invent a new playbook. It soon became clear after the election of President Morsi that he is no different from any other past ruler of Egypt, and the game of submission and seduction is still his preferred course of action. He is utilizing a well-worn mix of edict, rushed constitution, preaching of “renaissance” and stability and now emergency law. Fixing Egypt’s urgent problems is not his primary concern.

Now, on the second anniversary of the Jan. 25 uprising in 2011, it seems that both sides predicted some sort of violence and each arrogantly thought they could use it to their own interests. Morsi and his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have decided not to celebrate in Tahrir, leaving the opposition alone on the streets. The idea was probably to hold the opposition solely responsible for any violence and loss of life. Meanwhile, the opposition went ahead with its plan to demonstrate, blaming Morsi and his government for any riots and violence.

What both sides failed (or probably didn’t care) to appreciate was the degree of violence and the high death toll. Both sides wrongly assumed the violence would fade gradually, like it had always done in the past, paving the way for a political compromise. In this case, violence would not fade easily. The “ignorant” are now not playing by the book and are unwilling to be seduced or to submit. Many Egyptians have had enough, following years of neglect in every aspect of their lives from education and ethics to job skills. They are angry and frustrated, and many of them have no respect for the state or its institutions. Yet, the Brotherhood are again failing to appreciate their frustration, and insisting that the outburst of violence is not related to political differences.

What about the future? Thus far, there are three scenarios being put forth: consensus, coup or collapse. All of these are plausible, but I doubt that any of them will happen in the near future. Despite the frantic efforts to reach a consensus, it is unlikely that any possible deal will last, as while all players are keen to avoid the dangerous point of no return, they still view compromise as failure and pluralism as blasphemous.

As for the army, General Sissi is canny and clever. His recent statement was a well-crafted yellow card and the defined threshold for the army to relinquish control has not yet reached, as it requires different terms and conditions.

Judging from the responses of the different political parties, there is potential for a different outcome through a mixture of the three options: a semi, rather than complete, consensus with the army “leading from behind,” without resorting to a complete coup, in order to prevent a state collapse. Aware that the army is watching from a distance, the Muslim Brotherhood may compromise to keep the officers behind their barracks.

Will it work? It is difficult to tell. Egypt always works in mysterious ways. This time, the stakes are higher and the risks are immense, with the future continuing to be murky as long as our elite insists on playing backgammon on a chessboard, leaving the future of the country at the mercy of some rolls of the dice.

Nervana Mahmoud is a blogger and writer on Middle East issues. You can follow her on Twitter @Nervana_1.

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