AFTER A YEAR of misrule by its first democratically elected government, Egypt is hurtling toward a potentially catastrophic political conflict this weekend. It’s a confrontation that is unlikely to benefit either the Islamist government or its mostly secular opposition, but it could destroy Egypt’s hopes for consolidating a stable democracy or addressing its profound economic problems.
The Tamarod or “rebel” movement has called for Egyptians to take to the streets Sunday, the anniversary of President Mohamed Morsi’s government, in order to force it from office. The movement claims to have collected more than 15 million signatures on a petition calling for new presidential elections. The problem with this agenda is that there is no legal or constitutional mechanism for carrying it out; Tamarod’s leaders are hoping for what would amount to a new revolution or perhaps a military coup.
The Morsi government has done much to generate this ill-advised militancy. Breaking promises to seek consensus with secular and opposition forces, it forced through a new constitution and has been trying to impose its control over the judiciary, media and civil society groups. It has devised laws that would tilt future elections in its favor and passed up opportunities to strike deals with moderate opponents.
Perhaps more significantly, the government has infuriated average Egyptians with its poor management. Cities are plagued with power outages and fuel shortages, inflation and unemployment are growing and investment is dormant. A long-promised deal with the International Monetary Fund has never been completed, and only bailouts from Qatar and Libya have kept Egypt from exhausting its reserves of hard currency.
As we have written previously, there are substantial grounds for concern that Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood movement are seeking to monopolize power. But the opposition’s undemocratic answer offers little prospect of a good outcome. If mass protests succeed in prompting the government’s downfall or a military coup, any future elected government will be subject to the same tactics. And no administration will be able to tackle Egypt’s economic dysfunction, which will require painful reform measures, as long as the country remains polarized.
The only workable way forward is a bargain in which Mr. Morsi agrees to major compromises with the opposition, including constitutional reforms, the withdrawal of harmful legislation concerning the judiciary and nongovernmental organizations and an end to the prosecution of opponents. In exchange, opposition leaders should stop trying to overthrow the government and begin working to win the next election.
The United States has tried to push the sides toward such a compromise, but weakly. It has held back from using its economic leverage to curb Mr. Morsi’s excesses and even from speaking up against them forcefully, thereby convincing many Egyptians that it is propping up the Islamist government.
U.S. relations with the Egyptian military, which has walled itself off from the government, remain strong, which offers another opportunity. Last Sunday the armed forces commander declared that the military has “the obligation to intervene to stop Egypt from plunging into a dark tunnel of civil fighting and killing or sectarianism or the collapse of state institutions.” Washington should make clear that while the military may have a role in preventing bloodshed and pushing for compromise, a forcible interruption of constitutional order is unacceptable.
Read more from Opinions: