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Cairo Could Devolve Into Chaos This Weekend With Bloody Clashes and Street Battles--Here's What's Happening

Politics

Once the most promising incarnation of the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 now has turned into a cautionary tale on the verge of becoming a nightmare.

Cairo is preparing for chaos this weekend. Frantic Egyptians across the capital city of nineteen million are hoarding food, gas and stockpiling cash. Nearby military bases are calling reinforcements and the army has promised intervention if the protests turn too violent. Once the most promising incarnation of the Arab Spring, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 now has turned into a cautionary tale on the verge of becoming a nightmare.

The occasion for all of this is the one-year anniversary of President Muhammad  Morsi's ascent to power on June 30th. It will be an occasion marked with tear gas and rubber bullets, and very likely more graffiti portraits will be added to the martyr's wall near Tahrir Square. The opposition Tamarod movement (“rebel” in Arabic) plans to flood the streets of Cairo and other cities with millions of protestors. Widespread clashes are expected across the country as the opposition demands Morsi's resignation while Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces clash with them in the streets.

Protesters chant slogans and wave national flags in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012. . (Credit: AP) 

Of course, a Morsi resignation is almost certainly not going to happen. There is no mechanism in place to force Morsi to step down, or that could bring the Muslim Brotherhood to call for early elections. The opposition's fervor for better governance does not change the fact that there is no legal basis for their demands, nor do they have much of a plan to replace the current government even if they were met.

Acquiring 15 million signatures calling for Morsi's removal is an impressive feat of organization and persistence, but it's still political theater that won't change key facts. Morsi won at the ballot box last year, and there is even a counter-protest movement called the Tagarod (Arabic for impartial) that claims to have 11 million signatures. Nobody knows who really has the public’s support. Perhaps as importantly, the protestors can't strong-arm the Islamists and Salafists in street battles. The Muslim Brotherhood's core competency-- perhaps its only one-- is rabble rousing, after all.

Just what the Tamarod masses can achieve on June 30th then remains an open question. If they mobilize millions, it will certainly garner international attention, and shine a bright light on Muslim Brotherhood’s inept, authoritarian governance. The opposition might be able to convince their countrymen that, despite strong support for the Brotherhood in rural Egypt, the true will of the people is for decidedly more pragmatic, less sectarian leadership. But this will merely shift Egypt’s narrative without changing the power structure.

This is where the military might come in. The only faction that could feasibly wrest power from President Morsi and his Brotherhood stooges is the one that still has the most tanks and guns. But their entry is not a given. Though generally considered the guarantors of Egypt’s stability, the armed forces want to avoid responsibility for running a country that has an economy on the verge of collapse and widespread unrest in the streets. And the Brotherhood has been wise enough to allow the military to maintain its privileged position in Egyptian society and conduct its business as usual thus far.

If the June 30th protests turn into a melee of violence and disorder, the military could be forced to seize control. Egypt’s Army Chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi warned that intervention was on the table if the protests turned into anarchy. How long such an intervention would last and what it would do to Egypt’s faltering Democratic process is anybody’s guess.

Of course, as all the possible outcomes play out, conspiracy theories abound. This is Egypt after all, and there is a widespread belief among its people that the United States brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power and is now working feverishly to keep them in place. How this logic squares with America’s obvious abandoning of Mubarak at the critical hour, and our presumed revulsion at anything too Islamic, remains an open question (though if you ask an Egyptian, a sneer about Israel will likely come up). But regardless of the inaccuracy of political analysis on the Arab street, perception matters, particularly with revolution and counter-revolution seemingly imminent.

If one had to place bets, the most likely outcome of the June 30th protests is more deaths and dysfunction, but Morsi will probably continue on in his post as yet another failing Arab strongman cloaked in a deteriorating democratic legitimacy. The Tamarod movement and the rest of the opposition will have learned yet again that idealism almost always loses to political muscle. Maybe instead of gearing up for another round of protests, next time the Twitterati of Tahrir square will focus their efforts on the organizational efforts needed to win the upcoming round of elections—assuming they ever come.

The military remains the wild card in all of this. If they step in, even for a short period to restore calm, it will be hard to view it as anything other than a coup. The Muslim Brotherhood, much more comfortable raging against the machine than running it, would seize upon any interference as a strangling of Democracy. It’s impossible to gauge how much violence and instability would ensue, but needless to say an already floundering post-revolution Egypt is ill-equipped to handle more of either.

Cairo, always hectic and charming, has now become dangerous and desperate as well. It is a harbinger of broader disheartening trends in the largest Arab country in the world. As Egyptians attempt to redress their grievances in a new democracy this weekend, the monarchs, strongmen and theocracies of the Middle East will be watching with equal interest.

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