Some said it was the biggest protest they had ever witnessed in Egypt, even during the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak, the former president. Indeed, yesterday’s anti-government marches calling for the resignation of President Mohammed Morsi exceeded everyone’s expectations in size and were, until late in the day, peaceful.
Now, protestors, led by the “Tamarod” or “Rebel” grassroots opposition campaign, are putting increased pressure on Morsi to resign.
The Rebel group say they have given the president until 5pm tomorrow to resign, after collecting 22 million signatures from Egyptians, surpassing the 15 million quota they had envisioned.
But are calls for his resignation in the best interests of the country?
That is not to undermine the country’s protests, which yesterday brought the biggest crowds to the streets surpassing even the uprising of January 25, 2011. But despite the ocean of opposition against Morsi, the costs of a sudden handover of power to anyone – the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court (as Tamarod wants), the military (as some have called for) or the head of the Shura Council, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ahmad Fahmy, (as the constitution requires, if Morsi were to resign) - would likely be enormous and probably lead many more to lose their jobs.
An abrupt departure of the president would send alarm bells to all the major Egypt-watchers: international lenders (the country would kiss goodbye to any chance of an IMF loan until a new president was democratically elected), investors looking at sectors that have been neglected, namely oil and gas, and even Egyptians themselves. Ultimately, replacing the President only delays the country’s transition to democracy.
While politically his exit may be required by the millions who want him out, economically, the last thing Egypt needs is another period of chaos, uncertainty and confusion. Investors and Egyptians alike are looking for rule of law and order, not another limbo period.
If anything, the parliamentary elections should be brought forward, giving Egyptians a chance to channel their frustration and elect a new parliament that can pass and amend laws.
What is more, history shows that speed is essential for democratic transitions, as Caroline Freund, former chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank writes in this excellent op-ed for Bloomberg:
Countries that democratize rapidly grow faster over the long run by about one percentage point above their pre-transition levels. In contrast, countries that take more than three years to adjust suffer extended weak growth. Years of uncertainty and sometimes unrest leave investors on the sidelines waiting for signs of political and economic stability.
She compares Poland and Romania, where “Poland’s economic success was facilitated by peaceful elections and clear market-oriented reforms” while Romania’s economic transition was “was hijacked by the communists and accompanied by frequent demonstrations”.
Let’s be clear here: the right to protest and challenge the powers that be are vital in a democracy. And the solidarity created through mass demonstrations show the strength of the nation. However, Egypt’s economy is already struggling too much to cope with another political shock.
A new president will have the same challenges as Morsi: he would also need to impose new reforms on Egyptians and he would also be fearful about going through with it. Delaying these reforms now will cost the nation too much.
The best chance for Egypt would be for the president to announce early presidential elections for the end of the year, bowing to the force of the protesters but not sending the country back to square one.
Then, the new president’s first course of action could be to hold parliamentary elections within a few months and create a new committee representing the whole spectrum of Egypt (i.e., not dominated by Islamists) to amend the constitution.
But considering yesterday’s turn-out and Egypt’s political history, this may not be a viable option. Like Mubarak, Morsi is doing everything too little, too late and the people who will suffer the most in the end are the country’s neediest who have already seen their quality of life badly impaired by the instability.