Mursi Must Call Early Elections, for His Own Sake

"A Scholar's Take" in white text above a white pen outline

Mursi Must Call Early Elections, for His Own Sake

Since June 30, 2012, President Mohammad Mursi has had the chance to take Egypt forward, and avert chaos. Today, millions of Egyptians come out to tell him that he has failed, and that they want him to go. If he does not respond with some sort of solution that defuses the situation, then chaos comes – whether today, tomorrow, or later – but chaos comes. President Mursi still has the chance to end this – but he has to do it now. Even if he looks at it from the point of view of his own office, and his own party, the most strategic way forward demands a fundamental shift. There is simply no other way out for him in the medium to long-term – he has to call for early presidential elections.

There are a few things to be very clear about here. There is no negotiation that can be deemed to be useful over the next few days, between Mursi and his opponents. The opposition leadership, by and large, do not enjoy public support, and they are not nearly relevant to the public mood that is so energised about the thought of removing Mursi from office. Even the Tamarod movement’s co-ordinators, made up of some truly dedicated individuals, who do not propose violence or a return to the former regime, are increasingly irrelevant to this. There are two other elements that need to be recognised; forces loyal to the former regime, and unaffiliated Egyptian citizens who simply cannot abide by the current governing power. There is no negotiation that is possible with the former (they would never accept a Mursi government in any case), and the popular sentiment against Mursi has no group of leaders to represent them.

Make it or break it

That last group is the largest group out on the streets. They are the ones that hoped that Mursi would perform well – and who have been utterly disappointed by the past year. They are the ones who distrust the Muslim Brotherhood – but who have little praise for the National Salvation Front and its affiliated parties. They are the ones who no-one has been able to win the support of, and who have been ignored, left to the margins. They are the ones who were overlooked in President Mursi’s speech on Wednesday night last week, which was a call only to his base to support him, rather than build bridges with his opponents, as needed. They are the ones who, sadly, see their only hope in a military intervention that forces President Mursi to compromise or step down. The Muslim Brotherhood may reject them – but they need to accept that a year ago, these people weren’t agitating for a military coup. If they are now, the Muslim Brotherhood must bear at least a part of the blame.

They are the ones who, in the end, will make or break the next few days. If that group refuses to go home, they will have about a week. Maybe not even that – because the days are long and hot, and because Ramadan is right round the corner, and it is unlikely any high scale protest can last into the fasting month. Time is not on their side: but, there is more than a week between June 30 and the beginning of Ramadan – and a great deal can happen in that time.

But here is the thing: time is not on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mursi either. Many within the group think that it is – that all they need to do is weather the next few days, and they will be able to emerge victorious. They correctly surmise that the military has no desire to depose Mursi, as it would place the military into a governing situation that it does not want to deal with again – moreover, it could quite easily provoke an Islamist backlash against the military. But the Muslim Brotherhood are miscalculating, and with increasing risk.<

Institutions rejecting Mursi’s presidency

Firstly, if the level of violence increases much more, it can easily provoke not only the military, but also the police, to engage – and while the former might hedge its bets, the latter is not loyal to the government. Even though President Mursi praised the police in his speech, his own spokespeople were publicly telling the press that they barely trusted the police force. If there is widespread violence, the Muslim Brotherhood will be up against a huge proportion of the wider Egyptian population – a fight that they would be unable to stand, let alone win, for very long.

Secondly – and this is something the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to realize from the first day of President Mursi’s victory over Mubarak’s last Prime Minister – Mursi is unable to govern Egypt’s institutions. There is no way around this basic reality – Egypt’s institutions are constantly rejecting his presidency, and feel increasingly emboldened to do so. Good or bad is irrelevant – the institutions of the state that are needed in order for the country to continue functioning will make it incredibly difficult for Mursi’s presidency. If the country were doing all right otherwise, then that would be one thing – but this intransience comes at a time when the economy is heading towards disaster. If Mursi’s only errors were just about political polarisation and it stayed within the realm of political disagreements, he probably would be able to stay in office, and there would not be sufficient numbers out on the streets calling for his resignation. But that polarisation has meant that essentially, Mursi has no allies to help – and the Egyptian public, beyond political discontent, cannot be expected not to react in some way or another when (it’s no longer a matter of if) the economy worsens. June 30 is a planned protest, which is likely to spill over into violence: but what of the likelihood that unplanned social upheaval can take place anytime over the coming weeks and months, with far more uncontrollable violence?

None of this is sustainable. The country has serious economic issues to deal with, and a depth of corruption within the state reaching to the core. Realistically, neither can nor will be sorted, even if there was the will and competency to do so, with President Mursi in office. One way or another, the next few days, weeks and months will be difficult – and the easiest, most non-violent way to begin the road to recovery starts with a single decision from the presidency. That decision will not make his supporters happy, and it won’t fully satisfy the protestors – but it will defuse this entire situation, and give the country a chance. That decision can even leave Mursi in office, if temporarily.

The alternatives include a dark future for the Muslim Brotherhood, a new role for the military, and the threat of derailing Egypt’s democratic transition for an even longer period. The choice is his. President Mursi must call for early presidential elections – and he has to do it now. That will be for the sake of Egypt – but also for his own.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. Fellow at ISPU, he was previously senior practice consultant at Gallup, and senior research fellow at Warwick University. Find him online @hahellyer and www.hahellyer.com.

This article was published by Al Arabiya on June 30, 2013. Read it here.

ISPU scholars are provided a space on our site to display a selection of op-eds. These were not necessarily commissioned by ISPU, nor is their presence on the site equal to an endorsement of the content. The opinions expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ISPU.

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