A week of peaceful demonstrations on opposing sides of Egypt’s political divide is a welcome change from last week’s news of violent confrontations between activists for and against deposed President Muhammad Mursi or between Mursi supporters and the Egyptian armed forces which deposed him. As the anti-Mursi demonstrations shrink in size, having achieved their goal of removing the president, the sit-in of Mursi supporters around Cairo’s Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque (مسجد رابعة العدوية) may become an important canary in the coal mine of Egyptian democracy.
This demonstration of Mursi supporters is almost assured to be futile. Mursi will not be returned to power by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and his forces, the very people who deposed him and now have him in custody. Mursi supporters in the square may have rallied tens of thousands, perhaps even a hundred thousand, but that is far less than the hundreds of thousands in Cairo and perhaps over a million across Egypt who called for Mursi’s removal on 30 June. This will not be sufficient popular pressure to bring Mursi back, even as participants vow not to leave the square until Mursi is reinstated.
But to be powerful, the pro-Mursi protest must continue and remain peaceful, neither of which is assured. If Mursi is a lost cause, the place of the military as arbiters of election results is a very real issue. Although al-Sisi claimed that the removal of Mursi was not a military coup but the army acting out the will of the people, the group which organized the 30 June demonstrations against Mursi publicly complained that they were not consulted in the constitutional decree speedily issued by interim President ‘Adli Mansur. If Egyptians too quickly pack up and go home, they will have handed the Egyptian military a precedent that can be invoked to remove any future elected official unappreciated by the armed forces. All future civilian Egyptian heads of state are certain to have learned the lesson. Since the anti-Mursi camp sees their job as done, the pro-Mursi sit-in can keep the question of the army’s role in the ouster of President Mursi in the public eye, but only if it continues.
But if the pro-Mursi demonstrations turn violent, then the army will have an excuse to crush the protesters as opposed to the Egyptian state. Unfortunately, it really does not matter whether this violence is started by the protesters or by the army, because in either event both sides will blame the other, as we saw with the violence of last Monday. The power of the pro-Mursi demonstrations to call for democracy depends upon their continued peacefulness.
But if the pro-Mursi sit-in in Cairo continues and continues peacefully, they represent a salutary challenge to the army-run interim government which is desperately claiming that it did not come to power through a coup but through the will of the people. The government’s ability to maintain this claim may depend on its ability to allow a peaceful protest of thousands of people who view it as illegitimate. Although many, perhaps most, Egyptians do not sympathize with the die-hard Mursi supporters, a government crack down on a peaceful protest may increase their public support, and certainly would increase the plausibility of the Muslim Brotherhood’s claims that it is being illegally suppressed. The continuing – though futile – pro-Mursi sit-in around the Rabi’a al-’Adawiyya Mosque may demand that the army and its interim government live up to their promises of supporting democracy for the entirety of the Egyptian people, even those who disagree with them. The continuation of that sit-in will build Egyptian trust in their developing democratic system; the cessation or termination of the pro-Mursi movement will only lead to further troubles.
Strange as it may sound, Egypt’s best hope for democracy may lie in a long-running, peaceful, and ultimately futile sit-in of Mursi supporters.