Egypt on the brink: How did we get here?

Evan Hill writes: Families have stockpiled food and water, drivers have slept nights in petrol lines that snaked for city block after city block, and power cuts have rippled across the governorates and major cities. Half a dozen people have died in a spasm of violence that threatens to become a full-blown seizure when mass protests against President Mohamed Morsi break out today. Headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party have been attacked and burned throughout the Nile Delta, and his supporters’ rallies assaulted. Brotherhood toughs have banded together outside their offices wearing hard hats and makeshift shields and carrying homemade guns, ready to bludgeon or blow away what they fear is a coming wave of paid street thugs, the very embodiment of the counter-revolution.

Morsi’s opponents, sometimes backed by police, have also taken to the streets with firearms. Longtime revolutionaries uneasy with the violent omens and new, questionable allies have swallowed their hesitation and prepare to march on the presidential palace. As protesters sacked a Brotherhood office in Alexandria on Friday, someone in the crowd stabbed to death a young American teacher filming with his camera. In beleaguered Port Said, already subject to gun battles between citizens and police that killed dozens in March, a gas tank exploded at an anti-Morsi rally, reportedly killing one man and horribly maiming many more. Rumors flew that the protest had been bombed.

The country is gripped by expectant hysteria, like a Twilight Zone version of the hours before a World Cup final: nearly 90 million penned-in bystanders waiting on the opening whistle of a match to be played for keeps with guns and knives by partisans they hardly recognize as their own. One online commentator described the impending movement to oust Morsi on the one-year anniversary of his election as the birth of a new political order that may kill its mother. A journalist said it was as if Egypt’s body politic were rejecting a transplant and killing the nation in the process, a fledgling democracy’s auto-immune system gone haywire.

How did the country get here? How did the January 2011 uprising and its young, made-for-TV activists spin out into another zero-sum game for control? The story is complicated, and the strategic and tactical failures by both the secularist opposition and the Brotherhood so profoundly, majestically short-sighted and self-defeating that some have retreated into that most time-tested of rationales, the conspiracy, to explain how things could have gone so wrong, so fast. In their narrative, the crisis has been stage managed by the military, Egypt’s eminence grise and ultimate power-broker, beginning on the day in February 2011 when the generals opportunistically seized on the mass protests to quietly but forcefully escort Hosni Mubarak, his family and his cronies from the stage. [Continue reading…]

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