Mursi's bungles leave Egypt at a dangerous crossroads
President Mursi could have defused the situation two weeks ago before the bloody confrontations.
Egypt's President Mohammed Mursi and his advisers have now clearly demonstrated their lack of experience in politics. In the latest face-off with the opposition, the President has not only lost much of his previous gloss as a strong leader, but also opened the way for the military to reassert its position in the political arena. This does not augur well for Egypt's transition to a stable democracy.
Mursi had made a promising start, declaring himself an inclusive and consensual leader, and successfully limiting the military's role in politics, which had been long-standing. He had also raised his stature as a peacemaker by brokering a truce deal between Hamas and Israel in their recent conflict.
However, he has largely risked all this by seeking extra powers and pandering too much to his real power base - the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by many hardline Salafist Islamists. He has lost, or possibly never had, the ability to strike a balance between his Islamist supporters and the liberalist and secularist opposition forces (including many from the Coptic Christian minority), and thus also to keep the military out of politics.
By rushing through the draft of a new constitution by a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constituent assembly (to be put to a referendum on December 15), he has generated a relatively united opposition and enabled the military to call on all parties either to negotiate or face its intervention in pursuit of maintaining order and protecting the innocent people.
The opposition, which has accused Mursi of dictatorial behaviour and of seeking an Islamist transformation of Egypt, has now become so bold that it has rejected his latest decision to abandon his extra powers, and demanded the annulment of the referendum. It has even called on Mursi to step down from the presidency despite being a democratically elected leader.
Mursi could have defused the situation two weeks ago before the bloody confrontation between his supporters and opponents, and the loss of several lives, if he had been more politically astute and nuanced. However, given his apparent lack of understanding that politics is often the art of compromise and that Egyptian politics has become highly pluralist since the popular overthrow of his dictatorial predecessor early last year, he decided to tough it out with the opposition.
Ironically, he placed himself in a position similar to that of the Assad regime in Syria and the Islamist government in Iran, without having the necessary degree of control over the state's coercive forces as, for example, the Iranian leadership has had.
The result has been that he has moved from one political blunder to another. He is now positioned at a precarious crossroads between a highly polarised and charged population, and an empowered military whose assistance he needs to maintain order for him.
Of course, the easy way to resolve the impasse would be for the opposition to drop its boycott of the December 15 referendum and let the people decide the outcome. But it has refused to do so.
It has objected to the Islamist contents of the draft constitution, lost trust in Mursi and felt that the Islamists have hijacked what commenced as Egypt's pro-democracy revolution.
On the other hand, Mursi and his supporters do not operate in a popular vacuum either.
They appear to have widespread backing across Egypt, especially amongst the country's rural and religiously devout population. Both sides in the conflict appear determined not to miss the boat at this critical and determining point in Egypt's transition. A victory by either side could take Egypt in a direction contrary to the other's political and ideological interests.
For all appearances, Egypt is now caught in a dangerous triangular power struggle between Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist supporters, the opposition and the military. The latter definitely has the capacity either to play a constructive role by mediating and maintaining a balance between the opposite sides and leading them to compromises, which are very necessary at this juncture of Egypt's transition, or to engage in behaviour that would be self-serving.
No one can be certain at this stage what the outcome might be, but Mursi bears a special responsibility not to let the present confrontation go on for too long.
He and his Muslim Brotherhood fraternity must recognise that if they want to govern Egypt effectively, they need to come down from their ideological heights and deal wisely and prudently with the reality on the ground. They could learn a great deal from the Turkish moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK) that has been in power since 2002.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, AK has largely succeeded in generating a model of governance which is democratic and conducive to the transformation of Turkey into an economic powerhouse and a major player on the regional and world scenes on the one hand, and in line with reformist Islamist principles and values on the other.
Although the Egyptian conditions are different in many ways from those of Turkey, there are also a number of parallels between them. When it comes to a democratic transition, the Turkish model has a great deal to offer Egypt and, for that matter, many other Muslim countries.
Amin Saikal is professor of political science and director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (the Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.