Is Egypt on the cusp of counterrevolution? Over the weekend, Egyptians took to the streets en masse throughout the country to protest the decline and political disorder that have come to define the rule of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government.
The protesters have a lot to be angry about. Politically, the two-plus years since the ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak have seen massive domestic turmoil and acrimonious in-fighting. They have also borne witness to a religious transformation of Egyptian society by a political movement which, having initially pledged to stay out of national politics, has done no such thing. Instead, over the past year, Morsi—swept into office as a consensus candidate in a divided election in March 2012—has begun to implement sweeping changes to the country's government and society, sparking widespread concerns that his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, "is keen to Islamize the state and control its executive powers." Morsi's popularity has dropped precipitously as a result—from a public approval rating of 57 percent when he took office in late June of last year to just 28 percent today.
Economically, too, the country is in a tailspin, characterized by a rebounding rate of inflation, rising food insecurity and a widespread sense of anomie. Unemployment is rising as well, and especially among young Egyptians, one in four of whom is now without work. Observers say that nearly half of the country's 85 million citizens now exist "in a state of poverty"—living either below the poverty line or just above it. And fully a quarter of Egyptian families are estimated to spend half or more of their total income solely on food, an ominous foreshadowing of hunger on a national level.
The country's security situation has likewise deteriorated precipitously. Since the fall of the Mubarak regime, the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel has become a hotbed of criminality and lawlessness. Without serious security oversight from Cairo, murders, smuggling and arms trafficking have soared as criminals gravitate to the once-stable desert region. Militants are, too. Last month, a report from Germany's foreign intelligence service assessed that the Sinai has become the world's foremost terrorist training hotspot, surpassing Pakistan's unruly Waziristan province as the premier international destination for violent jihadists.
So far, Egypt's military has been content to wait in the wings, having hammered out a modus vivendi with the Brotherhood that largely preserves its political autonomy and economic power in Egyptian society. But it may not be passive for much longer. On Monday, the Egyptian military warned publicly that President Morsi had two days to "meet the demands of the Egyptian people" or it would be forced to intervene "to announce a roadmap for the future." The statement was a not-so-subtle message to the government that it must strike a deal with the Egyptian opposition, or face a potential military takeover.
That's bound to be a tall order. "Tamarod" ("rebel"), the Egyptian opposition movement behind much—though not all—of the current outpouring of discontent is still newborn, and far from united. Less than three months old (it was founded in late April), it as yet represents nothing so much as a loose agglomeration of activist groups that share a broad anti-government message. Even so, in the aftermath of Sunday's protests, the movement has called for Morsi to resign by midweek or face "massive civil disobedience," and appears to have the numbers to back up the threat.
Under these circumstances, it's not at all clear that there is a compromise that will satisfy Egypt's new revolutionaries, even if the Brotherhood was prepared to give them one. That leaves Morsi and his government with very few real choices… and with the clock ticking, loudly.