As Egypt teeters on the verge of a catastrophic confrontation, it is difficult to discern who has been more short-sighted: an arrogant Muslim Brotherhood that misread electoral gains for a political blank-check or a reckless opposition that has appeared ready to sink the country in order to bring down the Islamists and whose criteria for ousting the president – generalised incompetence and wide unpopularity – could send many presidents packing. The priority today must be to avoid further bloodshed. It is, too, to ensure that the next chapter in Egypt’s troubled transition, unlike the last, is inclusive and consensual. The alternative is to continue with exclusionary, confrontational politics, albeit with greater violence with only a change of characters at the helm.
Egypt’s profound divisions rarely have been on starker display than these past days. Millions took to the streets on 30 June to demand President Mohammed Morsi’s departure; smaller, yet still large numbers responded to insist on his remaining in office. From all sides has come talk of blood and martyrdom – from the Brotherhood, the youth-initiated Tamarrud (Rebellion) and the army itself. The forceful removal of the nation’s first democratically-elected civilian president risks sending a message to Islamists that they have no place in the political order; sowing fears among them that they will suffer yet another bloody crackdown; and thus potentially prompting violent, even desperate resistance by Morsi’s followers.
The current crisis to a large extent is the product of a fundamentally flawed political transition. Political actors were unable to reach basic agreement on rules of the game or the desired political system, instead proceeding with a winner-take-all mentality that was sure to alienate – and frighten –losers. Instead of consultations and consensus-building, elections and referendums – in which an organisationally superior Muslim Brotherhood excelled – became arbiters of an ever-more polarised political stand-off. As Egypt moved from one electoral contest to another, Islamists perceived their successive, though sometimes narrow, victories as mandates to shape the nascent polity as they deemed fit, overlooking the need to share power. Dismissing their admittedly ineffective opposition, they instead focused on trying to either sideline (in the case of the judiciary) or co-opt (in the case of the security sector) state actors they deemed more important, and thus potentially more threatening. This was a grave mistake.
Non-Islamists suffered from the opposite malady, viewing election results as altogether meaningless, demanding oftentimes disproportionate representation in decision-making bodies; challenging the basic principle of popular will; and yielding to the growing temptation of extra-institutional means, be it street agitation or calls for judicial or military intervention. All of which gave rise to this most incongruous of sights – a purportedly liberal, democratic opposition openly calling on the army to step in and cut short the term of the country’s first democratically-elected leader. This could prove a no less serious blunder and a dangerous precedent.
It is hard to know what ultimately pushed the military – which for some time had sought to avoid direct political involvement – to enter the fray as blatantly as it did on 1 July when, though ambiguous as to precise meaning, it essentially ordered the president to yield to critics’ demands or face the consequences. The president’s inability to achieve political consensus, address the economic mess, reassure the judiciary or establish law and order all played a part as might have signs – such as the appointment as governor of Luxor of a member of a militant group or Morsi’s overt support for calls for jihad against the Syrian regime – that the president was veering toward a more overtly Islamist agenda. At bottom, however, the army and security sector as a whole never felt fully at ease with an Islamist commander-in-chief, the president’s efforts to placate them notwithstanding.
Other state institutions have long awaited a chance to settle scores, and the massive 30 June turnout provided it. This was the case for the judiciary, which the president and his allies repeatedly had sought to reform and restructure, notably by threatening judges with early retirement on grounds that they were Mubarak-era holdovers. Anger at the Brotherhood ran even deeper within the police, which from the start has seen itself as the unjust victims of the 2011 uprising and could not fathom being ruled by the Islamists they used to suppress and arrest. As a result, a president routinely accused by his critics of engineering a power grab ended up with little power over any of the state institutions that really mattered.
Indications strongly point in the worrying direction of heavy-handed military intervention that, at a minimum, is reversing gains made in terms of a free press and rights of political participation. It reportedly has taken control of state media outlets, censoring footage of pro-Morsi demonstrations aired by private satellite channels. Muslim Brotherhood offices have routinely been torched and vandalised without any effort by the police to defend them and pro-Morsi rallies have come under repeated armed attacks by unknown assailants. As for the future political process, the military announced suspension of the constitution coupled with early presidential and parliamentary elections and named the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court as interim president.
If the status quo was unsustainable, a hard turn toward military control, even if exercised indirectly, would be ominous. A successful second transition must be based on a truly inclusive approach – which, this time around, means one that encompasses Islamists of all stripes, including the Muslim Brotherhood. An attempt to crack down on Islamists and deprive them of their political rights– coupled with restrictions on the media and the like – would be a cure worse than the ill, almost certainly driving Islamist groups underground and giving rise to a generation of radicalised Islamists, in Egypt and beyond, who will have lost faith in peaceful, democratic change. How far Egypt’s Islamists will go in challenging what they no doubt perceive as an illegitimate coup is unclear. But it is virtually certain that they remain strong enough to spoil their opponents’ success. And the problems at the root of much of the popular discontent – the economic crisis first and foremost – would not be any easier to handle with a non-Islamist monopoly than with an Islamist one.
However, the Muslim Brotherhood too should have learned lessons from its failed attempt at governing: that one cannot rule alone at a time of socio-political polarisation and transformation and that a constitution is a long-term social contract among Egyptians of varying ideological bents and ethnic, class and religious backgrounds, not the outcome of a one-time process dominated by the best organised political faction of the day.
It is difficult to see something healthy coming out of this in the short term. If as now appears certain, Morsi is forced out of office, it would constitute a blow to Egypt’s fragile democracy, regardless of what one thinks of his presidency, entrenching the view, for some, that mass protests backed by the army can trump the ballot box, and, in other quarters, that investing in a peaceful democratic process is simply not worthwhile. In light of the newly announced roadmap, several important measures ought to be taken by Egyptian actors, with international support:
clear condemnation by the army, police, and opposition of any form of violence, notably against Brotherhood institutions and members and simultaneous rejection of violence by the Islamists;
the new government that is to be formed should be civilian-led, genuinely broad-based as well as transitional and headed by a widely respected independent figure;
an ensuing national dialogue concerning the future political path, notably regarding the constitution, likewise must be as inclusive as possible.
In the end, the question should be less who leads than within what boundaries, as laid out by a constitution defining broadly consensual rules of the game. Whatever happens within the next few hours and days, officials and politicians should focus on discussing a process whereby the constitution can be amended or redrafted in ways acceptable to key political players and constituents. Both a functional interim cabinet and an effective constitutional committee must of course include participation of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies, which in turn means refraining from any politically-motivated crackdown. Lack of consensus-building proved to be the first transition’s original sin. It should not become the second’s as well.
Samer Ibrahim Abu Rass
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