There was no way this could end well. Mohamed Morsi and his supporters thought God was on their side, and their opponents concluded that they were up against religious fascists who would turn Egypt into another Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The hyperbole reflects an intensely polarised society and highly charged political atmosphere, where the voice of reason and moderation has been drowned out by the clamour for jihad on one side and for the military to rescue the country on the other.
Morsi clearly thought his speech last night (most probably his last) would be perceived as a heroic stand for democracy. Instead, it was seen by the people he most needed to persuade of his sincerity as a coded message to his most militant followers to unleash war on their fellow Egyptians, viewed as “enemies of the true faith”.
Reactions on social media were almost instantaneous as he delivered his speech on state television, word by word and gesture by gesture. Many were angry that the army had not prevented this man from delivering a speech that in their eyes amounted to incitement to violence. His readiness to die in defence of legitimacy (a word he uttered nearly 200 times) was interpreted as the code word for action by Muslim Brotherhood activists against their political enemies. Instead, it was his supporters near Cairo university who came under attack, and 16 were killed overnight.
Some predict the end for the Muslim Brotherhood as an organisation; others call for its complete annihilation; some warn against a witch-hunt that could exacerbate rather than avert the risk of civil war.
Morsi’s biggest political mistake was managing to alienate real and potential allies, thus uniting all his enemies against him. Old regime supporters made common cause with the revolutionary youth. They have succeeded in what neither of them alone could have achieved – staging the biggest demonstration in the history of Egypt. It was a resounding no to Islamism.
Almost no one in Egypt – except the Muslim Brothers and their closest allies – views the military’s intervention as a coup. And no one believes the army wants to rule. The hope among the opposition is that it will correct some of the disastrous mistakes it committed when it took over from Mubarak. But the ruling military council, known as Scaf, and the Muslim Brothers were the authors of a roadmap to democracy that is largely to blame for all that has gone wrong with Egypt since the overthrow of Mubarak in February 2011.
The army has said it has a new plan to move Egypt out of the current impasse. Let us hope it does not repeat past mistakes. If it does now take the reins of power temporarily, it must create a level playing field so that all political players, including the Islamists, can continue to take part in Egyptian politics. The one thing it must not do is to drive the Islamists underground once again.
(Published in the Guardian on Wednesday 3 of July 2013)