Egyptian protesters are on their own

Egyptians flocked to Tahrir square today in protest against the decree that grants exceptional power to President Morsi, and against the Muslim Brotherhood in general. Some protesters threw stones and the police fired tear gas.

Size matters when it comes to such protests, but it also difficult reliably to measure. The Washington Post estimated the Tahrir square crowd at about 20,000. In Alexandria, an anti-Morsi protest contingent was estimated at around 15,000.

These numbers aren’t insubstantial. They fall, I suspect, somewhere in between the size that can be ignored and the size that represents a possible tipping point. The government must decide whether to hope things blow over or to try to put an end to the protests. The former option carries no disincentive for continued protest. The latter might create a new incentive to protest.

Even more than size, the military matters in these affairs. Not long ago, the military was a potential counter-balance to Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. As such, it likely would have deterred Morsi from issuing the decree that spurred the protests. And, in the event of protests, it likely would have limited Morsi’s range of possible responses.

But the Obama administration refused to stand behind the conservative military leaders who constrained Morsi, and these leaders have been pushed aside. Thus, with the U.S. refusing to condemn Morsi’s power grab, the street protesters, currently undermanned, seem to be on their own.

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