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Government, Politics & Issues

New wave of mass protests in Egypt stirs fears, hopes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 2, 2013 - WASHINGTON -- In the wake of mass protests that spurred the Egyptian military to issue an ultimatum Monday to the country's president, some experts see signs of hope in the new wave of democracy but also fear that terrorism may worsen in the political chaos.

"I believe the country is truly moving toward real democracy," said Morris Kalliny, an Egyptian-born assistant professor at Saint Louis University. "But what I fear in the next few months are outbreaks of terrorism."

In an interview, Kalliny -- who studies the social and economic impact of the internet, satellite television and cellphones on the Arab-speaking world -- said some of his friends and relatives were among the millions of Egyptians who took part in the weekend protests, which some observers have said were larger than the "Arab Spring" protests of two years ago.

But this time around, the main target of the protesters was the year-old government of President Mohamed Morsi, who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group whose headquarters was attacked and mostly destroyed during the weekend protests.

Concerned about the latest round of violence, the U.S. Department of State and the British Foreign Office are now urging citizens to cancel or postpone travel plans for Egypt. And President Barack Obama, who is traveling in Africa, called Morsi on Monday to discuss the Egyptian government’s response to the mass demonstrations.

According to a White House readout of the call, Obama “stressed that democracy is about more than elections; it is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country.”

Obama encouraged Morsi “to take steps to show that he is responsive to their concerns,” the White House said, and suggested that “the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process.” Obama also “underscored his deep concern about violence during the demonstrations, especially sexual assaults against female citizens.”

With the Muslim Brotherhood pushing for greater control and the nation's economy in shambles, Morsi's popularity rating have plunged below 28 percent. On Monday, the top military commanders -- whose role had been diluted after the Arab Spring protests and the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak -- gave Morsi 48 hours to respond to the protests.

In what Morsi defenders warned was the threat of a military coup, the commanders issued a communique -- read over state television -- declaring that if the president failed to take action to quell the mass unrest, the military would seek to impose its own "road map" in an effort to resolve the civil crisis.

What is leading Egyptians to take to the streets again after their first efforts to create a democracy? Kalliny, a Coptic Christian who travels often to Cairo to conduct research, says Egyptians are unhappy with the economy, their lack of security -- as well as their unease with the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to move away from a secular state.

"Egypt has been in chaos for two years," Kalliny told the Beacon. "In the past, Egyptians always had security. You could send a child at 1 a.m. to go buy tomatoes for you. You didn't fear crime then, but you do now. The economy is in a terrible situation, but I think the biggest loss to the Egyptian people has been this loss of security."

In addition, he said, a growing number of people -- including most Coptic Christians, who constitute more than a tenth of the population -- are unhappy about the Muslim Brotherhood's push for greater Islamic domination of the state. Many Coptics have been persecuted, he said, and others have fled the country.

An expert on the Muslim Brotherhood, Shadi Hamid, told the New York Times that the brotherhood -- banned in Egypt for decades until the Arab Spring reforms -- has "underestimated its opposition" in Egypt and reached too greedily for power.

"I hear concern from Islamists around the region about how the Brotherhood is tainting Islamism," said Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.

Exacerbating the situation, is the fact that the Egyptian economy "has actually moved backward," Kalliny said. "The unemployment rate has worsened. Inflation has eaten away savings. A large number of investors has pulled their money out of the country. The exchange rate has fallen against the dollar and many people have pulled their money out of the banks."

Will protesters accept greater military, police role?

The ultimatum delivered Monday by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces thrust the military -- in modern times, the source of nearly all the country's presidents -- back into the leading role that it played in the ouster of Mubarak.

In its statement, the military council warned that "if the demands of the people have not been met" within 48 hours, then the armed forces would be forced "to announce a road map of measures enforced under the military’s supervision" for the nation's rival political factions to try to reach an agreement that would quell the mass protests.

Despite the political and economic turmoil, Kalliny sees some reason for hope. "There is now more of a sense of community in Egypt," he said. "I believe many Muslims now realize that mixing state and religion is not a good political model. They also realize that the Muslim Brotherhood is just as corrupt as any other groups."

During the Arab Spring riots, many protesters had rejected the role of the military and the excesses of the nation's police force under Mubarak. But Kalliny says that, seeing the chaos that has emerged, many Egyptians have realized the importance of the military and the police.

"In the last 12 months, the Egyptians have changed" their distrust of the army, he said. "The Muslim Brotherhood felt that they had to get rid of the military to be able to rise to power. But now the population has more trust in the military" because it is not aligned with any one faction.

"The military does not belong to any one group," he said. "Service is compulsory, so it includes Muslims and Christians, the poor and the rich."

While Kalliny said there is reason for hope in the changing nature of the mass demonstrations, he worries in the short term that the attacks on the Muslim Brotherhood may spur Islamist groups to step up terrorism in the short term.

"There is a relationship between Hamas groups, Palestine and the Muslim Brotherhood," said Kalliny. "I expect terrorism to skyrocket in Egypt in the next few weeks. They may resort to going back to what they used to do -- that is, working underground to try to disrupt the country as it tries to go forward." 

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