Egypt is on the brink, and, paradoxically, it is probably going to continue to remain that way in the near term.
The narrative we hear is far too simplistic. It goes something like this: an elected government turned out to be not only inept but arrogant and crudely insensitive toward the imperative need of inclusive democracy; a stagnant economy; rising prices; fuel shortages; power cuts – discontent is boiling over.
Yet, contradictions are galore. A recent survey by Zogby Research Services found that seventy-four percent of Egypt’s electorate could be lacking confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood, while on the other hand, seventy-five to seventy-eight percent also have a problem to repose confidence with the opposition parties.
Reporting from Cairo last week, Leslie Chang summed up for The New Yorker magazine: «After two years of watching politicians on both sides of the fence squabble and prevaricate and fail to improve their lives, Egyptians appear to be rejecting representative democracy, without having had much of a chance to participate in it. In a country with an increasingly repressive regime and no democratic culture to draw on, protest has become an end in itself—more satisfying than the hard work of governance, organizing, and negotiation. This is politics as emotional catharsis, a way to register rage and frustration without getting involved in the system».
When the public rage assumes such mammoth proportions, as the Cairo streets are witnessing, something surely has to give way. But then, any new president replacing Mohamed Morsi would also sooner rather than later run into the seemingly unbridgeable political and social division, which splits the Egyptian nation in half today. There is a political deadlock.
The youth, who were in the barricades in the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak have been joined today by the police and the army whom they had earlier loathed. The battle lines have blurred. The democratic opposition is scrambling to cope with the revolutionary fervor, while the social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook have seized the initiative.
The narrative is that this is a contestation between political Islam and liberal democracy. But then, Egypt’s Call and its political arm, the Nour Party, which is widely suspected to be funded by Saudi Arabia, prefers to stay neutral – the Salafists are endorsing the opposition’s main demand of early presidential election but refraining from joining the protests demanding Morsi’s dismissal.
Come to think of it, how can Morsi be «dismissed»? There is no legal or constitutional method available to oust Morsi who was elected one year ago for a four-year term with the support of 51.7% votes in an election that was widely accepted as free and fair. Not only that, the Brotherhood has won during the past two and a half years since Mubarak’s ouster not only the presidential election but the parliamentary poll six months earlier and a referendum six months later, as recently as last December, on a constitution drafted by them.
Three million Cairenes and a million Alexandrians have signed the petition of the Tamarod, but then, two and a half Egyptians from Upper Egypt have backed the Brotherhood. Indeed, the movement known as Tamarod («rebellion» in Arabic), which spearheads the current challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, is itself an enigma. No one knows where it came from. According to folklore it was founded by five young people in late April, one of whom is a mere 27-year old graphic designer with a goatee and a ponytail. They are all under thirty. As Chang observed, the «prevailing style» amongst them is «Revolutionary Casual: long hair, T-shirts with clenched-fist logos, hand-rolled cigarettes. Is this the future of Egypt? In fact, Tamarod represents a big step backward in the country’s political evolution».
Yet, Tamarod appears to be the most progressive movement today in Egypt and has stepped on to the centre stage exploiting the sharp polarization in the society, the failure of the established political parties to come up with any alternative program, and the sharp decline in the people’s trust of the governing institutions. All the same, realistically, the only way Tamarod can bring down Morsi will be by triggering street protests that degenerate into mass violence and a collapse of public order, which provokes or becomes the alibi – depending on how one looks at it – for the military to set in.
Obviously, military intervention means returning to the drawing board to start from scratch, nullifying over two years of transition and two national elections. The tragedy is that such a negation of the past may entail mass violence on an unprecedented scale, if the analogy of Algeria is taken into account. As Shadi Hamid of Brookings’ Doha Centre wrote in the Atlantic in a brilliant piece,
«If the first elected Islamist president is toppled, then what will keep others from trying to topple a future liberal president? If one looks at Tamarod's justifications for seeking Morsi's overthrow, the entire list consists of problems that will almost certainly plague his successor. They have little to do with a flawed transition process and a rushed constitution that ran roughshod over opposition objections and everything to do with performance… Legitimacy cannot depend solely or even primarily on effectiveness or competence. If it did, revolution could be justified anywhere at any time, including in at least several European democracies».
Evidently, Morsi’s ouster and the Brotherhood’s exit from the corridors of power in a military coup is not the way out for Egypt’s present political crisis. What is needed is a more inclusive political process, which of course entails Morsi changing his style and approach to governance and making concessions. Most certainly, the constitution needs to have a consensus opinion endorsing it and in order to make that happen, amendments to some of the controversial articles will be needed and the Brotherhood cannot be obdurate on that score. Again, the gravity of Egypt’s crisis is such that Morsi should think of a national unity government at least until the parliamentary elections are held.
Equally, the issue here is that the opposition parties are in default mode and are often being petulant when things do not go their way. They need to introspect why they do not – and cannot – win elections. The plain truth is that politicians like Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei think the Egyptian people owe it to them to elect them as their president. The established political parties have not cared to build political organizations or grassroots networks to tap into the discontent and it is here the Brotherhood steals a march when it is election time. They cannot take the stance that they will not take part in any election to form the new parliament because the Brotherhood might be he winner.
Suffice to say, Morsi and the Brotherhood also need to realize that elections are not everything in a democracy. There is a political legitimacy crisis in Egypt today insofar as there is a schism regarding the direction of the nation. A political deadlock has arisen thereby, which may lead to bloodshed and a military intervention.
It is hard to foresee what lies ahead in immediate terms. A military takeover cannot be ruled out, but is unlikely. The catch is that once ensconced in power, the military seldom willingly abdicates and returns to the barracks.
Or, there could be a Turkish-style «postmodern» coup in Egypt by the military, pressuring Morsi to call for fresh presidential election. The catch here is that the Tamarod insists on Morsi stepping down and handing over power to the head of the supreme constitutional court who in turn would act as acting president and conduct fresh presidential election.
The high probability is that Morsi may invite the opposition leaders to join a broad-based unity government within a power-sharing arrangement and agrees to review the constitution. The resignation of a large number of ministers from Morsi’s government in the past 24 hours suggests such a possibility.
What complicates matters in any of these scenarios is also that there are external players who have high stakes in what happens in Egypt… Much of the Middle East is in turmoil and the Muslim Brotherhood is a serious player not only in Egypt but in Libya, Tunisia and Palestine. Tomorrow, it could even figure in the calculus of political power in countries as varied as Syria, Jordan and the Gulf Cooperation Council states of the Persian Gulf.
(To be concluded)