CAIRO — Tahrir Square was largely empty on Thursday. The smell of rotting garbage hung in the air. The crumpled banners, empty soda cans and old corncobs of the Egyptians who had celebrated the ousting of their president lay smashed and strewn across the pavement.
Those Egyptians who remained spoke of hopes for an “honest” president to replace the deposed Mohamed Morsi. They said they were optimistic that the military, bolstered by an uprising of millions, had given Egypt a new beginning — a chance to finally get the country’s revolution right after 21 / 2 years of misfires.
But even as the dust settled in Tahrir, a complex battery of challenges remained — first for the military that has once again assumed responsibility for the nation’s direction, and then for whoever is bold enough to take on the job that proved so disastrous for Morsi.
Egypt’s economy is in tatters. Nearly a quarter of the work force is unemployed, and roughly half the population lives on less than $2 a day. The country owes billions of dollars in debt, its foreign currency reserves nearly exhausted. Prices are spiking, and shortages loom.
“Gasoline. Traffic. Bread,” said Ahmed Fadel Abuzeid, an electrician who camped in Tahrir to bring down Morsi. “We never had the power cuts before. And we never used to have these prices.”
There are no easy fixes. Many Egyptians turned against the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi because of his poor stewardship of the economy, and experts say much of that blame was well-deserved. But Morsi also inherited the legacy of an authoritarian regime that over decades had rotted from within: a bloated bureaucracy, a costly and inefficient subsidy system and layer upon layer of corruption.
“Whether it was going to be the Muslim Brotherhood or not the Muslim Brotherhood, whoever was going to govern Egypt was really going to have their hands full,” said Joshua Stacher, an Egypt expert and political scientist at Kent State University in Ohio.
Any solution, economists say, will require considerable pain.
“In order to move from this stage to a stage in which we achieve economic growth will require measures that will not be popular,” said Amirah El-Haddad, a professor of economics at the American University in Cairo.
Egypt’s next leader could well be beset by many of the same problems that doomed the last. A day after Morsi’s fall, a virtually unknown judge took over the presidency on an interim basis. But few seemed eager to make a run for a post that will be contested in elections the military has promised but has not yet scheduled.
“I don’t know anyone in his right mind,” said Egypt’s foreign minister Mohamed Kamel Amr, provoking laughter from his aides. “Wait, wait — I’m joking with you,” he added. “Don’t put that.”
The economy won’t be the only problem confronting whoever next rules Egypt. The constitution that was ratified under Morsi has now been nullified, meaning this highly polarized nation must start from scratch in developing a set of common laws and principles.
After the military’s dramatic move on Wednesday, Egypt’s new leaders will need to restore a semblance of constitutional authority, said Tom Ginsburg, a professor of comparative and international law at the University of Chicago.
But to do that, “it must be accepted by a vast majority of the population,” he said.
That means getting the support of the Muslim Brotherhood and others who backed Morsi in elections just last year — a tall order at a time when many feel their democratic rights have been trampled.
Muslim Brotherhood officials who spoke at a news conference of Morsi supporters on Thursday said that participating in any process set up by the military is out of the question.
“Now you are talking about a dictatorship,” said Murad Ali, a spokesman for the group. “We are not accepting this.”
Ali accused the army of trying to re-create the era of Hosni Mubarak, the military-backed autocrat who governed Egypt for 30 years before his ouster in 2011.
Rights groups and political analysts warned Thursday that without a process of reconciliation, stability in Egypt will be elusive.
“The only gain we made after Mubarak, and through Morsi, was freedom,” said Hossam Mikawy, a judge in Egypt’s Nile Delta. “We did not make any progress in anything else. So if we lose our established freedom by not allowing the Islamists to participate, then we will have gained nothing.”
Military leaders, who have now ousted two governments in three years, insist they have no desire to govern Egypt directly. Amr, the country’s foreign minister, said he assured his counterparts around the world of that commitment in telephone conversations Thursday.
But the military also seeks to maintain its immense power and privilege, including control of a vast economic empire that it runs free of civilian government oversight. Morsi largely avoided trying to tamper with that empire, and analysts said Egypt’s next leaders would be wise to do the same.
“The military in principle wants a civilian political leadership, but it wants a leadership that respects its powers and privileges,” said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.
In his final televised address to the nation as president on Tuesday night, Morsi delivered a message of defiance that also included a last-ditch plea for support and understanding.
Moving the country toward an era of growth, stability and productivity “requires a great deal of effort, solidarity, and it also requires time,” Morsi said.
But if the next leader takes too much time, protesters said, there’s always one sure-fire solution.
“We’ll go down to Tahrir again,” Hoda Fadallah Abuzeid said.
Surely if the last two didn’t know the power of the people, she said, the next president will.
Michael Birnbaum and Sharaf al-Hourani in Cairo contributed to this report.