For a sense of international perception of Egypt’s immediate future, glance at the Cairo airport: In the last few days, airline workers have canceled at least seven in-bound flights, and other planes have arrived half-empty. Demand is plummeting, and underscores a tense reality: Some people may be leaving Egypt, but few want to enter.
If Cairo’s vast airport is empty, her winding streets are full. Tens of thousands of supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi are camping out in two locations: one outside a mosque in eastern Cairo and another outside the campus of Cairo University.
They’ve said they won’t disperse until the interim, military-backed government releases Morsi and reinstates his power. The military has refused both demands, and on Wednesday made a demand of its own, ordering the country’s security forces to break up the pro-Morsi demonstrations—a move certain to inflame thousands of Egyptians who have vowed to stay.
Less than a month after millions of Egyptians successfully demanded Morsi’s ouster, the military that deposed him faces a critical question: How does it deal with the thousands who disagree?
The question surfaced immediately: As Egypt’s top military leader announced Morsi’s ouster on July 3, millions of Egyptians celebrated in the streets. But thousands also decried the move, and thronged the military barracks where officials held Morsi.
Since then, a series of clashes between security forces and supporters of Morsi have killed dozens. The worst upheaval came on July 27, when security forces reportedly opened fire on pro-Morsi supporters, killing as many as 78.
The protests have highlighted the complicated dynamic in Egypt’s second revolution in less than three years. Though millions supported the ouster of Morsi, citing his heavy-handed tactics that moved the country in a markedly Islamist direction, many remain dedicated to the idea of an Islamist government.
(Indeed, Egyptians elected Muslim Brotherhood members to a majority status in Parliament last year, and Morsi won the country’s first free presidential election in decades.)
But while many agree that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood badly managed the country over the last year, and abused their power on many levels, it’s not clear whether Egyptians can agree on a system of government to represent their remarkably broad range of interests.
Over the last few weeks, the military-backed government has named new members of the country’s Cabinet, including three women and three Christians—minorities often isolated from Egyptian politics.
But the new Cabinet doesn’t include Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood or the ultra-conservative Al-Nour Party—a group that originally backed Morsi’s ouster. The interim government says it offered the groups Cabinet positions, but they refused to accept.
That kind of tension remains high in the streets, and the next 48 hours are critical: While Egyptian security forces have an obligation to ensure public safety, how they manage a dispersal of pro-Morsi protesters could define the relationship between Islamists and the rest of the country for months—and even years—to come.
A violent crackdown could embitter a vast segment of the population, and put the new Egyptian government in danger of the dynamic they opposed in ousting Morsi: crushing opposition.