The Brotherhood Forces Hard Choices on Egypt’s Democracy

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The Brotherhood Forces Hard Choices on Egypt’s Democracy

That is the question buzzing around foreign capitals at present, as well as among the opposition in Egypt, after President Mohammed Morsi assigned himself complete power, apparently temporarily. However, other questions must be asked first: for whom is the 25th of January revolution still continuing? What are the options in the coming weeks and months?

Mr Morsi, it should be clear, did not receive near-absolute powers after his announcement last week. Rather, he already had them since the election in June. Of course, he shared those powers with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi for a short while, but after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was reorganised in August (and Gen Tantawi stepped down), Mr Morsi became a very powerful figure.

What had restrained Mr Morsi was not a legal framework: that does not exist without a constitution and parliament. It was the resistance from within the Egyptian state that refused to recognise his authority. When Mr Morsi made his declaration last Thursday, he was not really changing the rules of the game. Rather, he signalled that in the absence of rules, as the elected president, he would make his own.

Those who support Mr Morsi’s declaration are the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the different Salafist groups; they are not concerned with what Mr Morsi may do with his power, nor with the precedent he has introduced. As it stands, the move works in their favour: they have the lion’s share of seats in the constitutional assembly, which is now protected from judicial review.

Those who actively oppose Mr Morsi’s declaration, from Hamdeen Sabahi, the leftist former presidential candidate, to Mohammed ElBaradei, the Nobel-winning former head of the IAEA, were in Tahrir Square on Friday, and will return in the days to come. These opponents, who include the majority of the non-Islamist political spectrum (as well as many who are either Islamist or “post-Islamist”), fear what Mr Morsi may do with his power. The accusation that they are collaborating with former Mubarak cronies to bring down Mr Morsi is preposterous.

But what about the silent majority of Egyptians? They are not Islamists, nor do they actively support Mr Morsi’s declaration. But they are not actively opposed either: the majority of Egyptians want to get on with life.

The opposition cannot claim they have majority support and neither can Mr Morsi in terms of his decree. Yet the president is the default authority – and the majority of Egyptians usually favour stability and calm.

Incidentally, it appears that – for the time being – the country’s most powerful institution takes the same position. No doubt the army is waiting to see how events play out, but it is unlikely it will step in unless the situation worsens. As such, Mr Morsi might be able to wait this out.

Nevertheless, the situation is neither stable nor calm. Mr Morsi and the opposition both have choices in this regard. Will they consider consensus as something valuable to move Egypt forward? What is the long-term future of Islamism in the country? And what is their ability to think strategically?

Islamists have generally shown they believe in more than the “one man, one vote, one time” model as a means to political power. Observers should assume that if Mr Morsi were to lose the presidential elections a few years from now, he would step down.

That commitment to the ballot box, however, is not sufficient for his opponents. They fear that between elections, there will be no agreed norms that regulate executive power. Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood should be aware that their choices over the coming days and weeks will not reflect on them alone. As the mother organisation of mainstream Islamism worldwide, their actions will reflect on Islamists everywhere.

Mr Morsi and his supporters argue, correctly, that there are issues that are difficult to deal with from within the system, such as state corruption. In that regard, there are two choices: either proceed extremely slowly, or engage in supra-legal measures. The current controversy is not just that Mr Morsi chose the second option, but the way he did so. Mr Morsi’s democratic mandate is extremely thin: he won 24 per cent in the first round of presidential elections, and just 51 per cent in the second.

The controversy could have been avoided had Mr Morsi opted to build consensus with his adversaries who supported the revolution. Political consensus building, however, has not been part of the Brotherhood’s modus operandi since the uprising’s beginning. Many senior Morsi supporters were not even consulted before the recent decree; others objected, but were overruled (which might, in fact, encourage him to reconsider).

Economic pressure is already mounting as Cairo’s stock market nosedived. Yet Mr Morsi has made unpopular decrees before, such as the recent labour-union law. If the Brotherhood decides to press its advantage further – perhaps by arresting opposition members on flimsy grounds – it would bode ill not only for the group, but for any democratic system in Egypt.

The opposition has a choice, regardless of what happens in the coming days and weeks. There are three political tests ahead: the referendum on the constitution, parliamentary elections and the presidential elections in several years. The assumption is that opposition groups will lose the referendum, do badly in parliamentary polls and split their votes in the presidential election (as they did in the last one). That would largely be down to poor organisation and a lack of staying power. If they can correct those deficiencies, then they might be able to play the role of an effective opposition at a time when Egypt needs it the most.

The revolution has not come to an end, but it is being contested. Those who define it will be the best organised, and those who stay focused. In that regard, the opposition to Mr Morsi’s recent decree has a lot of ground to make up.

Dr H A Hellyer, a Europe Fellow at ISPU,  non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs, and relations between the Muslim world and the west. 

This article was published on the National on November 27, 2012. Click here to read.

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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