What's next for Egypt? Johns Hopkins Middle East expert weighs in

Economic difficulties fuel uprising, opposition to Morsi government

Enmeshed in what some call a coup and others an uprising, Egypt is bracing for a showdown. Massive demonstrations continue in the country, with protestors flooding Cairo's streets as a deadline looms for embattled Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

Morsi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader voted to office a year ago in elections made possible by the wave of demonstrations known as Arab Spring, was recently given an ultimatum by the nation's military—either agree to power-sharing or leave office. Hours before deadline, the nation's first democratically elected president remained defiant, escalating tensions between his supporters and the military-led opposition.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Image caption: Protesters gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011 as part of the wave of demonstrations known as Arab Spring.

Image credit: Essam Sharaf

Most demonstrations have been peaceful, but 23 people died and hundreds were injured on Tuesday in clashes at Cairo University, near the site of an Islamist rally in support of Morsi, according to the state-funded Al-Ahram news agency. On Wednesday, Egypt's top generals called emergency meetings with civilian political leaders to discuss next steps. Later in the day, Morsi reportedly proposed a consensus government as a way out of the crisis.

With the deadline now passed and no clear resolution in sight, we asked Camille Pecastaing, acting director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, to offer some perspective on the state of Egypt and what could lie ahead.

What is fueling this unrest? How did we get to this point, and was this anticipated?

Before 2011, Egypt had both an economic problem—inequality and inadequate economic and human development—and a political legitimacy problem—decades of an autocratic Mubarak regime (and prospects of dynastic transition to his son). The 2011 "revolution" wrote a new page, but soon enough Egypt faced a deepening economic problem, as previous issues were aggravated by a drop in foreign direct investment and tourism revenues, and by the global economic situation. Egypt still faced a political legitimacy problem, since Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood could not capitalize on their being democratically elected. Many Egyptians did not trust them, and they failed to reach out beyond their supporters in order to build trust and buy time until the economy recovered.

Ongoing protests and clashes forestalled any prospect of economic improvement, and made it impossible to work out a reform and loan program with the IMF. Egypt was bleeding money, and economic difficulties worsened the political tension in the streets, feeding a perfect storm. As the opposition reached a critical mass the army was prompted to intervene. Without a big rupture, Egypt seems caught in a downward spiral.

Is the fate of President Morsi sealed, or does he have a political future?

Morsi's future is irrelevant. The Muslim Brotherhood is resilient, has many supporters and is not leader dependent. Even if they are evicted from power they will rebound and learn from their failure. Admittedly, there could be a lot of soul-searching and maybe some scissions in the movement. Some may be tempted to move to the center, and others to leave politics to focus on social work, an activity at which they excel. Another scenario, although of low probability for now, would be for sustained violence to erupt between Islamists and the military in a quasi civil war development.