A hardline Islamist group normally aligned with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood today joined the opposition in calling for a national unity government as part of a plan to end the violence that has left more than 60 dead the past dead and raised doubts about the country’s political trajectory.
The Salafi al-Nour Party supported the secular National Salvation Front’s demand for a national unity government and for amendments to the contentious Islamist-drafted constitution.
But President Mohammed Morsi (above) rejected any such initiative during a trip to Germany.
Germany would only provide assistance for Egypt’s transition if Morsi’s government upheld certain democratic ideals, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
She called on Morsi to adopt a more pluralist and tolerant approach, telling him that it is “important for us that the line for dialogue is always open to all political forces in Egypt, that the different political forces can make their contribution, that human rights are adhered to in Egypt and that, of course, religious freedom is enjoyed.”
But Morsi suggested that the current turmoil was an inevitable characteristic of political transitions.
“What is happening now in Egypt is natural in nations experiencing a shift to democracy,” Morsi told reporters during a brief visit to Germany on Wednesday. “Nations take time to stabilize and in some countries that took many years. It has only been two years in Egypt and, God willing, things will stabilize soon.”
The Salafist-secular rapprochement took observers by surprise.
“Clearly there are real divisions within the Islamist bloc and they are not on the same page,” said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, a member of the opposition and a political scientist. “Everyone feels that the situation is escalating and reaching a dangerous level. The country fracturing and there is violence everywhere.”
The recent unrest signals the emergence of a potentially powerful new force in Egyptian politics, says a prominent analyst – the country’s disenfranchised youth.
“Until now transition was a game between three political forces: the Islamists, led by the Brotherhood; the liberals and nationalists; and those who ran the old regime, from the security establishment to those in business and parliament,” writes Ezzedine Choukri Fishere:
For two years, the well-organized Brotherhood mobilized, manipulated and built alliances with the loose and disorganized liberal camp to bring down the leaders of the old regime. ….Now the game has changed. Once in power, the Brotherhood embraced a self-serving interpretation of democracy. Any previous promises of partnership and power-sharing subsided as the Brotherhood moved to take control of state institutions.
Such heavy-handedness confirmed the worst fears of the liberals that the Brotherhood’s support for democratic transition was only a means towards the end of Islamist authoritarianism. To many liberals, the stand-off with the Brotherhood has become a fight for their survival and of democracy itself.
“The reality is more complicated as, at a deeper level, another dynamic is taking place,” says Fishere, an Egyptian novelist and professor of politics at the American University in Cairo:
Three-quarters of Egyptians are under 50; more than half are under 30. Once excluded from politics, this majority is now central to it. The Tahrir Square protests are largely of their making.
The Brotherhood might be able to get away with ignoring the liberal parties but they are dangerously wrong to underestimate the demands for change by the younger majority.
The events of the past week give us a glimpse of how fast the situation can deteriorate, and how bad it can get. If the Brotherhood cannot be persuaded to change course, Egypt will travel – probably at an accelerating rate – along the road of prolonged instability.
But the secular opposition has been criticized for its opportunism and lack of strategy.
“The National Salvation Front completely failed to galvanize the people against the Brotherhood. You cannot legitimately call for the removal of the president when he was elected,” said Hafsa Halawa, a liberal lawyer and protester. “There should be a way to improvise, a way to allow the president and the opposition to find middle ground.”
When a German reporter asked Morsi about comments in which he described Jews as “bloodsuckers” and “the descendants of apes and pigs,” he his words had been taken out of context.
“I am not against Judaism as a religion,” he said. “I am not against Jews practicing their religion. I was talking about anybody practicing any religion who spills blood or attacks innocent people — civilians. I criticize such behavior.”