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Understanding Egypt’s unrest

U of T expert explains global impact

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square June 30, 2013 (photos by Zeinab Mohamed via Flickr)

As tens of thousands protest in Tahrir Square and the Egyptian military prepares to take control from President Mohamed Morsi, one of the most influential African economic and political entities hovers on the brink of further chaos and instability.

James Reilly, a professor of modern Middle Eastern history at the University of Toronto’s Department of Near and Middle Eastern Studies, explains potential regional and global consequences of the dramatic events even as they continue to unfold across the country.

What is the significance of the events unfolding in Egypt?

Egypt's revolution is unfinished. Many of the old institutions are unreformed. Muslim Brotherhood rule has failed.

After one year of President Morsi, Egypt's pressing problems have gotten worse (unemployment, poverty, deteriorating public services, lack of credible or accountable institutions to negotiate and adjudicate inevitable internal conflicts). Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood overreached. They interpreted their post-2011 electoral victories as an opportunity to implement majoritarian rule over a population who either did not vote for Morsi in the first place, or who voted for him reluctantly and with reservations.

How might these events carry global consequences?

Egypt is the demographic, geographic and cultural center of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood was born in Egypt (1930s). Nasserist Arab nationalism was born in Egypt (1950s). Egyptian developments are closely watched elsewhere in the Arabic-speaking lands. Whatever the nature or character of post-revolutionary Egypt in the years ahead, it will become a pole of attraction or repulsion in other Arab countries.

In global terms, Egypt's youth-organized popular demonstrations against political authoritarianism and consequences of economic neoliberalism have their analogues in Turkey and Brazil. So Egyptian events form part of a global movement of political mobilization that is facilitated (though not "caused") by 21st-century means of instant communication and networking.

What will you be watching for in the coming days and weeks?

Within hours we probably will know if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are to be removed from power by military force, tantamount to a coup. If so, how will they respond?

The Muslim Brotherhood continues to be a significant force in Egyptian society. The Brotherhood's argument is that they were elected freely and legitimately. If they lose power through unconstitutional means, they will constitute a significant and embittered constituency numbering in the millions. Egypt's internal political conflicts and divisions will likely deepen further.

The revolution that began in 2011 has not ended, and its "final" outcome (in terms of constitutional, legal and institutional characteristics) is not yet knowable.

Brianna Goldberg writes for U of T News.