Egypt at a crossroads

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The long simmering tensions between Egypt's Islamist-backed President Mohamed Morsi and liberal and secular opposition groups erupted over the weekend into violent street demonstrations that have plunged the country into crisis. Unless Mr. Morsi can address the protesters' demands for a more inclusive government that represents all the country's political factions, Egypt's fragile new democracy could collapse into chaos and usher in a return to military rule.

Two years ago, Egyptians gathered by the hundreds of thousands in Cairo's Tahrir Square and other cities to force an end to former President Hosni Mubarak's 40-year autocratic rule. They returned to the same sites last weekend in numbers that dwarfed even those protests, this time to demand the ouster of Mr. Morsi, the Islamist-backed candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood who just a year ago won office as the first democratically elected president in the country's history. In an stunning reversal of fortune, mobs ransacked and burned Brotherhood offices across the country on Monday while police and army units stood by and watched.


The protesters, many of whom say they voted for Mr. Morsi last year, are enraged over what they call his government's dictatorial style, corruption and mismanagement of the economy. They complain he forced through a new constitution that pushed the country closer to becoming a conservative Islamic state and packed government departments with insular Brotherhood and Salafist appointees who have betrayed the idealistic hopes for pluralistic democracy that inspired the Arab Spring. Moreover, the tourist trade on which the country depends has dried up and the economy is in the tank, causing unemployment to soar among the country's young people. The protesters summed up their message to the president in a single word: "Leave."

Mr. Morsi, for his part, has defiantly rejected that call, insisting that he will serve out the final three years of his four-year term. But today, for the first time, the Egyptian military threatened to intervene in the crisis. In a statement read on state television, the head of the country's armed forces, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said that if Mr. Morsi did not take immediate steps to address the protesters' demands, the army would act to impose its "own road map for the future."


That ominous warning, coupled with the refusal of Egyptian army and police units to protect the offices of Mr. Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party and those of its allies, raised the possibility of a military coup that would return to the generals the power they held for the first year after former President Mubarak's fall. And although General al-Sisi couched his statement as a call on Mr. Morsi to make his government more inclusive, the fact that he set a 48-hour deadline for the president to comply appears to signal that the military is already preparing to seize control of the country by force. Not even the most optimistic observers believe Mr. Morsi can reach an accommodation with the opposition within two days.

That has brought Egypt to a crossroads. If Mr. Morsi is determined not to bend to the protesters' demands and to remain in office until his term expires in 2016, he may very well be deposed by the military acting with the support of opposition groups and perhaps even a majority of ordinary Egyptians, who seem thoroughly fed up with their president's inability to improve basic public services and get the economy moving again. But a coup would also represent a terrible setback for Egypt's democratic experiment, and its repercussions would surely be felt everywhere in the region where people are demanding more representative and responsive government.

On the other hand, if the army steps back from its threat and allows Mr. Morsi to continue in office, Egypt could become ungovernable as protests bring the political process to a standstill. Eventually Egypt could fall into a protracted state of violent civil unrest and sectarian conflict that would be even more destabilizing for the region than the bloody civil war now raging in Syria.

To avoid such an outcome the U.S. needs to exert its all its influence to persuade Mr. Morsi to reach an accommodation with the demonstrators while at the same time restraining the Egyptian military's impulse to intervene. It's vital that both sides step back from the brink long enough for a political settlement to take shape. That's the only way out of the impasse Mr. Morsi and his opponents have created for themselves, and time is running out fast.