Middle East

Is street politics the enemy of democracy in Egypt?

Graffiti picture of President Morsi
Image caption Anti-President Morsi graffiti accusing him of being the new Mubarak

The head of the Egyptian army, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, has warned that continuing political strife is pushing the country to the brink of collapse. So can the newly-formed democracy, forged in the revolution two years ago, survive?

Leila, a teacher in her 40s, in a dark green headscarf, was one of many I talked to in Tahrir Square who was keen to give her views.

Why, I wondered, was she back here now, exactly two years since the revolution to oust President Mubarak began, calling for his successor to step down? Because nothing's changed, she told me.

"President [Mohammed] Morsi is no different. One mafia has replaced another. This is not what we fought for," she said.

It was easy to draw parallels between what was happening now and at the start of the uprising in 2011.

The sight of the square filled with protesters, the smell of teargas, the chanting of the same slogans and, tragically, the news filtering through of deaths in clashes elsewhere in the country.

But, of course, something had changed.

I put it to Leila that the man whose departure she was calling for wasn't a dictator, but a man her compatriots had voted for.

We got a slightly troubling answer. "Yes, but the people who voted for him," she said, "are uneducated."

I have heard several similar responses.

One of those opposed to President Morsi is the political sociologist Dr Saed Sadak, from the American University in Cairo.

"Morsi was rejected by the urban areas," he told me. "It was the rural parts of Egypt that voted for him and his Muslim Brotherhood."

"Isn't that how democracy worked all over the world?" I replied. "Not everybody gets who they want, they can always vote him out next time."

Dr Sadek's response was blunt. "It's like you're telling me to keep the babysitters I hired even if they are beating my child, just because we gave them a fixed term contract."

Islamic law

So what is it that President Morsi has done that has so angered the opposition protesters?

Some told us it is because the pace of change has been too slow - though he has only been in the job seven months.

Others talk of his constitution as a "power grab", even though that was passed by a referendum just a matter of weeks ago.

In the end, for almost all of those we spoke to, it really appeared to boil down to one issue: the fear that with President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, would come the Islamisation of Egypt.

Perhaps you can understand the concerns about women's rights, the place of minorities in society, and the future introduction of more Islamic law... when they are expressed by those who fought for change two years ago and now feel betrayed.

But not everyone who made sacrifices in 2011 was secularist.

Faiza Abdel Hamid lost her son early in the revolution. Mustafa was shot dead by Mubarak's forces in a protest after Friday prayers. He had been leading the worshippers close to Tahrir Square.

"We still don't have justice," she told me, when we went to see her on the street that has been renamed after her son.

"That's because Mubarak and his sons didn't hang, and because their people are still everywhere in our system.... I believe in God," she told me, "and I believe in Muhammed Morsi".

There are many like her.

Anyone relying on a political solution to bring together people on either side of the huge divide exposed by the revolution, could have a long wait.

The political system has stalled.

Image caption Following mass protests in Egyptian cities, Mubarak stepped down as president in February 2011

Opposition groups refuse to engage with the president and the judiciary has dismissed parliament. Muhammed Morsi is accused of poor decision making, and he has done little concrete to allay the fears of liberals.

It is street politics that rules for now.

Two years ago, for the first time in generations, Egyptians saw a way to change things: civil disobedience. Those bloody days also taught them to lose their fear of the security forces.

That has made it all the easier to demonstrate, whether it be about politics or, as we have seen recently, about a court decision in a trial about a football riot last year.

But with street politics comes disruption and aggression and instability.

So is this how it's going to be in the future? When one side's elected, will the other think the only option is to take to the streets until the president falls?

How many times will that cycle repeat itself? Will democracy ever be a concept that takes root here?

Many Egyptians, used to stability for so many decades, have had enough of the turmoil.

Forty-one-year-old Muhammad Khamis grows vegetables in a village in southern Giza.

"It's fine for people with money in your pocket, or foreign passports," he told us. "The people blocking everything the president does, have got millions in their bank accounts."

He said they didn't mind if this economic crisis continued for years.

"But a way has to be found - no money's coming in and I'm struggling to feed my family. I need this mess to end."

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