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The deadly chaos in Egypt marking the second anniversary of the uprising shows that the transition in the Arab world’s most populous country will be long and painful. The anti-government violence in several cities along the Suez Canal, which has left 49 people dead and parts of the country in a state of emergency, is rooted in a deep distrust of the country’s basic institutions. That’s a problem the Muslim Brotherhood government cannot afford to ignore any longer.
Death sentences handed to 21 soccer fans for a stadium riot that caused more than 70 deaths a year ago triggered a sharp reaction from supporters of one of the rival teams. Now President Mohamed Mursi finds himself in the odd position of asking the public to respect the same judiciary which he previously attempted to overrule on other matters.
Tensions were already boiling among a public tired of political instability, and even if the government can restore order now, there are many potential flash points ahead. Sentences are due in March for the rest of the accused in the stadium riot. The opposition group, the National Salvation Front, is urging nationwide protests and threatening to boycott parliamentary elections unless the constitution is amended and a new presidential vote takes place. The difficulty of overcoming Egypt’s political divisions has been widely underestimated. Though the country’s long-term growth story remains intact, a recovery will take longer than many expected, and it will be riskier too as each month of instability brings fresh economic losses and deters investment.
The violence is weighing on the Egyptian pound which has already lost eight perc ent of its value this year. Amid rising prices, the government has little room to maneuver. And the fact that violent riots are happening along the Suez Canal will reinforce worries about the security of that strategic route, and the precious foreign currency it generates for Cairo. Egypt’s disparate political factions blame each other for the disorder but none alone look able to generate enough popular support to launch the necessary deep reforms the country badly needs. To restore meaningful stability, it looks increasingly urgent for the Muslim Brotherhood to try to find a compromise with its political adversaries, and build a consensus on how best to modernise the country.