Perusing US media coverage and analysis of the crisis in Egypt over the last two weeks has been quite disappointing. As the protests against the elected president Muhammad Mursi escalate, the main players in the struggle and the stakes involved are often mischaracterized. Some might ask: Why does this matter?
Discussions about Egypt’s current moment in the United States are important precisely because the Muslim Brothers are eager to secure international legitimacy. The fact that they have a team of high-level foreign policy aides lobbying for them in Washington, when they have yet to open meaningful discussions with the domestic opposition, speaks volumes.
Liberal American analysts and commentators, keen to distance themselves from the post-September 11 legacy of Islamophobia and to give the newly elected Islamists a fair chance, seem to have allowed their allegiances in the US context to shape their understanding of what is happening in Egypt. In the process they have reinforced a number of faulty assumptions.
First faulty assumption: The rival camps in Egypt embody a divide between Islamism and secularism.
That is certainly the line the Muslim Brothers have tried to project in their talking points. But the view from the other side looks different. None of the leaders of the opposition have rejected the long-held dictum that the principles of Islamic law (shari‘a) should be a source of legislation, as stipulated in Article 2 of the constitution. Nor have any of them called for a total dissociation of religion and politics. On the streets, as far as I’m aware, not a single slogan or chant has called for secularism. The opposition’s anger is directed at a more specific target, the Muslim Brothers, who they see as trying to dominate Egyptian politics. These fears are largely grounded in the Brothers’ actions over the last two years.
The mistrust between the Brothers and its opponents has been brewing for a long time. It has less to do with religious convictions and more to do with politics. From the day Mubarak was deposed, the Muslim Brothers have shown disdain for other opposition groups and little interest in building consensus on a road map for the political transition and the fundamentals of the new political order. Instead, they pushed for speedy elections, knowing they were poised to win a near majority, and emerged as an elected power broker rather than a partner in a democratic revolution. When demonstrators returned to Tahrir Square in November 2011 to demand a swifter and more genuine transfer of power to civilians, the Brothers stayed away and claimed the protests were instigated by saboteurs trying to derail the parliamentary elections. After reneging on their promise not to field a presidential candidate and winning the election in June (in part by attracting non-Islamist voters who feared a restoration of the old regime under Ahmad Shafiq), the Brothers failed to deliver a more inclusive constituent assembly, which continued to be dominated by Islamists. After a series of boycotts and withdrawals, many groups — Christians, women, liberals, leftists — were left with almost no representation.
Then came Mursi’s November 22 decree, which for many was the last straw. By granting himself sweeping powers and rushing to call for a December 15 referendum on the new constitution, Mursi has given Egyptians a stark choice between being ruled by an unrepresentative constitution or by a dictator. Many have refused this kind of political blackmail. Leading opposition figures, many of whom were dissidents under Mubarak, have called on Mursi to revoke the decree and open the constitution drafting process to broader input. Egyptian human rights groups have almost unanimously echoed these demands. Tens of thousands who joined the protests that brought down Mubarak are back on the streets. Their fight is not for an ill-defined secularism so much as it is for political inclusion and democracy.
Second flawed premise: Islamists are authentic representatives of the majority of Egyptians.
The corollary, of course, is that the opposition represents a secular minority resentful of Islamist rule and unwilling to accept the outcome of legitimate elections. One analyst with the International Crisis Group told the New York Times the persistence of protests was partly due to the opposition’s inability to “come to terms with these defeats, so it tries to delegitimize the Muslim Brotherhood.” While the latter description may be true of some Mubarak-era state elites that are falling from grace under the new regime, it barely holds for the thousands of protesters who have opposed Mursi’s anti-democratic maneuverings.
There are no empirical grounds for any side to claim a definitive majority. Both the Muslim Brothers (along with their Islamist allies, including the salafis) and the opposition have been able to rally hundreds of thousands of supporters over the last two weeks, evidence of the deepening polarization in Egyptian society. The result of the last election, which Mursi won by the skin of his teeth with a 51 percent majority, suggests the Islamist camp is not the undisputed representative of the masses that it claims to be.
Herein lies the crux of the political crisis in Egypt. With the Muslim Brothers convinced that most Egyptians are behind them and that their opponents are a small, feckless elite, the Brothers have acted as though they possess a democratic mandate to bully their way through the political process. Until their leaders cease to speak of majorities and minorities, and instead recognize that there are different constituencies in Egypt that are large and have legitimate aspirations, the political system will likely remain deadlocked. Or worse, the Brothers may be tempted to resort to repression of political opponents in order to get their way. The incitement of Brotherhood members to clash with opposition protesters on Wednesday, and Mursi’s subsequent threats of legal action against political figures he claims have been financing chaos and violence, could set Egypt on a dangerous path.
Third analytical error: Mursi has made great strides toward civilian democracy and his downfall would mean a return to military rule.
Accusations that, by stalling the political process, the opposition is courting a coup misread the military’s role in the current crisis. The army is equally invested in the existing draft constitution, which keeps their core prerogatives intact: a secretive budget, officers’ control over the Defense Ministry, a strong say in national security decisions and the right to try civilians in military courts. The generals are relieved to have found a civilian partner who can manage day-to-day political affairs, while ensuring that the military has the autonomy to pursue its own interests outside the purview of democratic oversight. These concessions are consistent with the Muslim Brothers’ pattern of refusing to stand up to the generals whenever their own path to power has been at stake.
The draft constitution does not reflect a democratic consensus, as many in the opposition have argued that it should. It reflects an emerging relationship between the Muslim Brothers and existing state institutions, like the army, along with a great deal of appeasement of the salafis, whom the Brothers have embraced as junior partners. The rush to a referendum suggests a deep anxiety among the state elites about continuing instability and a desire to seize the opportunity to cement a new political framework as quickly as possible. More worrisome than the text itself is the vision these leaders have for which voices count and which alliances matter in the new Egypt. Should this vision go unchallenged, the losers would be all those who have been calling for more pluralistic and inclusive system.
In his December 6 post, Jason Brownlee writes, “It is important that the ideological debate between liberalism and Islamism not be seen as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism.” Perhaps recent events in Egypt call for a rethinking of these terms. True, liberalism and democracy are not automatic counterparts, no more than Islamism and authoritarianism are. But the battle in Egypt is indeed one between a democracy that reflects the country’s political diversity and a remodeled authoritarianism, led by the Muslim Brothers and their allies, that seeks to circumscribe it.