Cairo turmoil

The Egyptian army deployed tanks and armoured vehicles outside the presidential palace in Cairo after five people died and hundreds were injured in clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi this week. The government's decision to go ahead with the December 15 referendum on the controversial draft constitution has sharpened divisions and heightened the chances of prolonged unrest. Not only has violence returned to the streets on a scale not seen since the protests that toppled Hosni Mubarak early last year but the stand-off between the government and the judiciary is now starkly public. The judiciary has ceased work and refused to supervise the referendum, while still protesting Morsi's November 22 decree, whereby he assumed sweeping powers. Meanwhile, despite scaling down the scope of his special powers, Morsi appears adamant about holding on to them.

After Mubarak's ouster, a tenuous arrangement had been put in place in Egypt, with the military continuing to rule till the presidential run-off in June. This half-way house had instability built into it. Yet, while Morsi successfully curbed the military in August, his confrontation with the judiciary lacked sufficient tact, as could be seen in the November decree. It now appears that in taking on the judiciary, Morsi had overreached. The return of violence and the deepening political divisions were caused by his decision to push ahead with the draft, which the liberal, secular and Coptic opposition claims doesn't guarantee sufficient rights to minorities and women among others and runs the danger of pushing the country towards Islamism. So, while all the economic and social challenges faced by Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party remain, his actions seem to validate fears of the Muslim Brotherhood's dictatorial intent.

If Egypt is to evolve into a genuine democracy, it has to protect minority rights and offer credible guarantees against majoritarianism. Given Egypt's significance as the fulcrum of the Arab world, and its ongoing attempt to regain its former stature, it is imperative that a compromise be reached immediately. Morsi, who has shown enough pragmatism to not confront the West so far, as seen in his brokering of the Israel-Hamas ceasefire, should initiate a much-needed dialogue with the opposition so that the promise of Egyptian democracy doesn't crumble.

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