Violence and chaos continue to mar Egypt’s transition to democracy. In the face of rapidly spreading violence that threatens the safety of the ordinary citizen, and the seemingly uncontainable chaos and acts of hooliganism directed at state institutions, Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi declared a state of emergency and decreed night-time curfew in Port Saeed, Suez and Esmailiya.
This followed clashes that left 32 people dead during demonstrations in Port Saeed protesting the death sentence handed down to 21 football fans found guilty in connection with the deaths of 74 people during football riots in Port Saeed last year.
The persistence of anti-government demonstrations, the vehemence of the opposition to Mursi, the clashes with security forces and the spread of the turmoil to other parts of Egypt have raised troubling questions: Who is behind the growing violence directed at peaceful protesters and at symbolic institutions of the state? What is the agenda of people who are throwing Molotov cocktails at the presidential palace?
Why is the political opposition in Egypt so obdurate, and, frankly, obstructionist? Why is it insisting on having a series of demands satisfied before participating in a national dialogue? Why is it threatening to boycott the forthcoming parliamentary elections if these demands are not satisfied, thus prolonging the crisis? Why is it calling for more demonstrations that regularly turn into clashes?
Why is there an absence of politically responsible movements comprised of civil societies, professional associations and citizen movements urging the government and opposition to step back from the abyss and provide constructive suggestions for urgent solutions to the crisis?
The Egyptian president must recognise that the current political turmoil and its incalculable cost for the economy and a falling currency is a national crisis that requires a national response.
The obvious solution here is the formation of a government of national unity after the forthcoming parliamentary elections. This is an opportunity for Mursi to redeem himself after having alienated many Egyptians when he failed to keep his promise to appoint Coptic and women vice-presidents.
Another suggestion is that Mursi must decide once and for all if he is going to be the president of the Muslim Brotherhood and risk perpetuating the current polarisation of Egyptian society, or be the president of all Egyptians, and start the long and necessary process of healing and national reconciliation.
The onus is on Mursi to prove that he is the president of all Egyptians. The only way to prove that is through concrete actions that demonstrate his understanding of a fundamental pillar of democracy; and that is that democracy is not about the tyranny of the majority, but about the protection of the rights of the minorities.
Perhaps the most potentially far reaching policy decision Mursi can make to blunt the criticism and defuse the crisis is to indicate that a bipartisan committee has suggested that the Egyptian Constitution be revisited by a truly representative group of elected officials, legal experts, women, youth, representatives of the Coptic Church.
Their mandate should be to produce a new document that truly reflects the democratic principle of consensus and be a true embodiment of the claim in the preamble that ‘We the people of Egypt’ come first.
There is also an urgent need to address the issue of human rights, for the new Egypt will be judged first and foremost by how its people are treated. This is all the more true because democracy is not simply about electoral procedures, but substantively about liberty and fundamental rights.
And that is precisely the essence of the Egyptian revolution. That is the one feature that is supposed to clearly and unambiguously distinguish the new relationship between government and citizen after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak’s repressive authoritarian regime.
That is why when Mursi in November issued a decree exempting himself from judicial review, and thus placing himself above the law, the distinction disappeared and the revolutionaries felt betrayed and quickly made their way to Tahrir Square — the symbolic birth place of the revolution
Egypt seemed to be on the verge of another revolution — possibly more violent — when Mursi recognised his mistake and rescinded the offending decree.
If the institutions of democracy are built gradually, the right to liberty and fundamental freedoms are not; they are inherent to the individual. They are natural rights that are not granted; they are exercised.
A democracy fosters an environment that allows its people to enjoy these rights in the pursuit of happiness. An authoritarian regime fosters an environment of fear and repression that denies the individual these natural rights.
The Egyptian Organisation of Human Rights has complained that six months after Mursi was elected president “criminal defamation and blasphemy prosecutions are increasing, police torture with impunity remains endemic, and civilians continue to face trials before military courts”.
There is no reason for such a situation to exist. For the sake of democracy, and for the sake of the people of Egypt, these practices must end forthwith.
Adel Safty is distinguished professor adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.