It must have been unsettling for President Morsi to find himself, on the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, forced to take measures reminiscent of those used by Mubarak in his last-minute attempt to rescue his regime from collapse. Faced with growing unrest and the failure of police to contain the turmoil in central Cairo and elsewhere, Morsi ordered the army to restore order in Port Said, Suez and Ismailia.
There are parallels with the 18-day uprising that ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule. However, apart from some wishful thinkers in Tahrir Square, no one is seriously claiming that history will repeat itself, at least not so soon.
Morsi still enjoys the legitimacy (albeit rapidly eroding) of popular election and has a sizeable Islamist constituency, mainly in rural Egypt. The White House has expressed cautious support for his response. But first indications are that his gamble has at least partially backfired. Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in defiance of a curfew, denouncing him and the Muslim Brotherhood.
The immediate trigger was the sentencing to death of 21 fans of Port Said’s football club, Al-Masry, for their role in Egypt’s worst ever soccer violence in February last year. More than 70 supporters of the Cairo club Al-Ahly (known as Ultras) were killed after a match between the two sides.
This was a level of violence not seen before in Egyptian football, which gave rise to suspicion that the bloodshed was politically motivated. The Ultras had played a key role in the protests that toppled Mubarak and almost everyone suspected elements within the security services of orchestrating the killings.
When the verdict was handed down in Port Said last week the Ultras celebrated, while relatives of those sentenced exploded in anger. They had laid siege to the prison where the defendants were being held in an attempt to free them. In the ensuing violence 30 people were killed.
Few – except those who want to score political points – can fail to see that Morsi’s attempts to restore order were at least partially justified to defend the rule of law. Attacks on police stations, jails and courtrooms have become all too frequent over the past two years and most Egyptians would be happy to see an end to the chaos. Predictably, Morsi’s political enemies saw in the Port Said troubles an opportunity to pile on the pressure. But it is doubtful that, faced with the same threat, they would have acted differently.
Morsi sought to defuse the political crisis and offered the opposition a dialogue – an offer that has now been rejected on grounds that “we have heard it all before”. They have demanded a transparent and credible process to amend the Islamist-leaning constitution drafted by Morsi’s supporters and adopted by a slim majority in a controversial referendum with a relatively low turnout last month.
Morsi has weathered a few storms before and may do this time too. But others will follow as long as the underlying political conflict remains unresolved. A profound gap between those who want to turn the country into an Islamic state and those who want a modern democracy has been exposed.
Not only are there the usual disagreements over how to deal with spiralling debt, fight corruption and create jobs. There is no consensus on the rules of politics itself, something the controversy over the constitution has revealed.
The experience of Egypt’s troubled transition has shown that neither side, at least in the foreseeable future, can prevail and rule alone. Each has just about enough power to frustrate the other. Unless they realise this and devise a way to manage the country together, Egypt will remain on the edge of a precipice for years to come.
Magdi Abdelhadi is a freelance writer and broadcaster and former Arab affairs analyst for the BBC.