Morsi struggles to balance reform and authority


ENDING TURMOIL: He needs a cooperative state security apparatus but this is unlikely to happen any time soon

TWO years after the toppling of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt seems nowhere closer to regaining its standing and respectability in the eyes of the international community.

An announcement by its new leader, Mohamed Morsi, that a curfew would be imposed on three cities after devastating riots by soccer fans led him to become the target of criticism from many quarters -- ranging from political opponents to civil society groups -- and being accused of turning himself into an authoritarian leader with sweeping powers.

From an outsider's point of view, the phenomenon of mass violence staged by football fans seems somewhat out of proportion and difficult to comprehend. And yet fights between rival football associations and clashes with the state security forces have grown to such a scale that baffles external observers.

Last year's clashes between football fans in Port Said left 74 dead; a figure that has not been replicated anywhere else in the world. Yet, as analyst James Dorsey noted, these are not merely clubs of men who happen to love football, but are rather well-organised movements of angry youth bent on confronting the state and the institutions that are linked to the old regime.

Dubbed the "Ultras", Egypt's football clubs happen to be the second biggest mass movement in the country today, and they were partly responsible for the downfall of the Mubarak government. Yet, these football clubs are also the unlikely product of Mubarak's development programme, which led to massive rural-to-urban migration and the creation of overcrowded cities with a growing number of unemployed male youths.

During the Mubarak era, some of these Ultra movements were targeted by the state security services as a threat to stability, but in many of the overcrowded inner cities of Egypt, they provided a sense of collective identity and purpose to a whole generation of alienated and disaffected youth.

Morsi, however, is now confronted by a spectre that he perhaps had not accounted for: having mobilised his own supporters among the Muslim Brotherhood movement and tapped into the anger of the younger Ultras to bring him into power, he now faces the prospects of putting a lid on all the anger that was unleashed during the Arab spring.

In order to do so, Morsi has tried to consolidate his own authority via measures like the new Constitution that was passed recently. This, however, has not placated or dampened the feelings of millions of frustrated young Egyptians who seem disinclined to return to their homes.

In a repeat of other similar popular revolts such as that of Indonesia's in the late 1990s, Egypt seems to be sinking into a morass of non-stop public demonstrations that have also contributed to the fatigue and disillusionment of many of its citizens.

After overthrowing Mubarak, the initial promise of reform and economic improvement has not materialised.

Compounding matters has been the dismissal of many of the senior army personnel who were part of the Mubarak government: Field Marshal Tantawi has been dismissed and former prime minister Ahmad Shafik lives in exile.

In a radical break from the past, the Morsi government has all but decapitated the leadership structure of old Egypt, but has to start anew from zero. Morsi's government is thus under siege -- from a state security apparatus that resents its present-day marginalised status, a police force that is resisting reform and a young population that seems to be angry and distrustful of all symbols of state power.

The angry protesters whose violence occasioned the curfew imposed by Morsi have gone one step further by openly flaunting the curfew and by having demonstrations at night, occupying public spaces in Cairo and other major cities. Radical groups like the "Black Bloc" anarchists have also appeared on the scene, vowing to maintain the momentum of the revolution and to overthrow Morsi's government next. What, then, can be done to save the country?

Egypt today serves as an interesting case study of what can go wrong when revolutions are allowed to prowl unleashed in an undisciplined manner. The story is as old as the French revolution, whose own excesses were only curtailed when Napoleon imposed dictatorial rule, thereby consolidating the gains of the revolution, but at the expense of fundamental liberties. From the outset, the non-compromising approach of the anti-Mubarak movement meant there would be few bridge-builders in the wake of Mubarak's demise.

Morsi's antagonistic approach to the army, police and bureaucracy meant that in the wake of his victory he would have inherited an empty state apparatus that would not do his bidding. Morsi needs to bring stability and normality back to Cairo and the rest of Egypt quickly, but this can only be done if he has a cooperative state security apparatus that would help him, and which he would in turn protect.

This, however, is unlikely to happen any time soon and, in the coming months, more gang members will be charged in court (and possibly given the death penalty) for their role in the killing of rival football fans last year. The likely outcome of this would be even more mass youth violence, prolonged instability and anxiety about the future.

Meanwhile, Egypt still has to play the role of being the biggest Arab country in the Arab world today, despite the fact that the Egyptian model is not exactly the best model for social transformation at the moment.

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