Posted by on December 12, 2012 in Blog

Since President Mohamed Morsi’s decree on Nov. 22, which placed his decisions above judicial review, Egypt has been in a state of perpetual political crisis, with each day bringing new demands and concessions from both Morsi and his secular opponents. Throughout it all, American diplomats and policy-makers have been remarkably silent, repeatedly refusing to either condemn Morsi’s rush towards a constitutional referendum nor to embrace it as the legitimate conclusion of Egypt’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy.  Instead, the administration has held fast to a sort of middle way, calling for calm and peaceful dialogue while seemingly hoping the whole thing will be over quickly.  Unfortunately, for both the US and Egypt, hope is not a strategy.

Much of the attention in the last few weeks has focused on Egypt’s competing political forces, broadly seen as Islamist and secular liberals (finding an all-encompassing name for this second group is difficult, but secular liberals is as good as any).  Morsi overstepped his authority in issuing his Nov. 22 decree, and the secular forces responded, sometimes with violence.  Both groups deserve some blame.  But it is more important than ever to recognize that the roots of this conflict are in the transition process that began in February of 2011, when the Egyptian military forced Mubarak to resign and took control of the country. From the very beginning, the transition process was poorly designed, badly executed and perhaps even intended to make democratic politics unappealing to average Egyptians by making the process unnecessarily complex. The three steps in the transition, the elections of a president, a parliament and the writing of a new constitution, proceeded in the exact wrong order, and the rules governing elections were announced so late as to make it impossible for newly formed parties to compete. Finally, many of the institutions of the transition, and especially the all-important constitutional assembly, were designed as zero-sum processes, always destined to divide Egyptian politics along its deepest faultline: the role of Islam in public life. The structure of the transition process encouraged whichever political faction emerged stronger from the parliamentary and presidential votes to use the constitution as a chance to cement their power, rather than to provide a sound footing for Egyptian democracy. This certainly does not absolve Morsi and his partners of responsibility for their power grab, but it is important context. Despite the military’s notable absence from this latest conflagration, it bears much of the responsibility for the conflict.

Morsi’s original sin, the Nov. 22 decree freeing himself from judicial oversight, came with context of its own. Morsi has said that he issued the decree to preempt a judicial decision that would have dissolved the constitutional assembly, and with it, the Islamist-friendly draft constitution. This was not an entirely unfounded fear; indeed, many observers of Egyptian politics predicted that just such a decision was in the offing. This question became wrapped up in the larger dynamic of mutual suspicion and contempt that exists between the judiciary and the Muslim Brothers. To the Brotherhood and its supporters, Egypt’s highest judges are tools of the former regime interested in foiling the Islamist ascendancy. There is some truth in this: most of the judges on the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) were appointed by Mubarak (what that indicates about their politics is a separate question), and they mostly come from the educated, Cairene elite that largely hates and fears Islamists. Furthermore, it has been only a few months since the SCC dissolved the Brotherhood-controlled parliament, leaving Morsi as the only elected representative of the Egyptian people. Despite these legitimate concerns, Morsi and his advisors overstepped severely in issuing the Nov. 22 degree.  A smarter course would have been to allow the SCC to invalidate the constitutional assembly, and then reap the electoral rewards of the aftermath of that decision. Morsi and those around him seemed to lack that patience. Having come so far, and seeing the ultimate prize so close at hand, it seems they could not resist reaching for it.

And so, we end up with the terrible choice that faces Egyptian voters next weekend. They can either vote to approve a deeply flawed constitution that addresses none of Egypt’s most pressing problems, or they can vote to reject it, in the absence of a clear plan for what happens afterwards. Struggling for an effective way to oppose the referendum, liberals have fallen into their traditional trap of protest and boycott, leaving the Islamists to organize and mobilize actual voters. Given the Muslim Brotherhood’s highly effective voter turnout machine, the referendum will likely pass, ensuring years of political turmoil in which neither side accepts the basic rules of the game. This outcome underscores the need for a constitution-drafting process that is inclusive of all political factions, rather than written by one group to exclude its enemies.  In the long run, it will need to be rewritten, and future Islamists may come to regret Morsi’s overreach.

The past few weeks have also revealed Egypt’s greatest political deficiency. More important to a functioning democracy than any institution or statute is the basic ability to disagree with other political actors without questioning their patriotism, loyalty or motives. As the recent battles have demonstrated, this is a capacity that is completely absent in Egyptian politics.  Secular liberals accuse Morsi of wanting to turn the country into a Saudi-style theocracy, while Morsi supporters torture secular protesters to determine exactly which foreign embassy is paying them to protest. Reasonable political dialogue is impossible when the other side is seen as foreign saboteurs, rather than legitimate citizens with a different vision for Egypt’s future. This type of paranoid demonization of opponents as foreign and treacherous is among the most pernicious of the effects of 60 years of authoritarian rule.  True democracy will be impossible in Egypt until political factions can disagree without questioning each other’s legitimacy.

Lastly, we return to the American response, or lack thereof. Morsi’s original decree came as he was riding a wave of goodwill after brokering a truce between Israel and Hamas that ended their brief war. During that crisis, it was clear that the Obama Administration was pleased to have Morsy, who has credibility with Hamas, as a new interlocutor with Palestinian Islamists. This may explain, in part, the Administration’s reluctance to condemn Morsi’s actions. But more likely, the answer is more simple: the lack of any good alternatives. Suppose President Obama decided to condemn Morsi.  What might he embrace as an alternative? The secular opposition is fractured and incredibly ineffective, the Salafis are inimical to US interests and the military, despite being a reliable American partner, has proved itself entirely inept at actually governing the country. And, given the anti-Americanism of the Egyptian public, a rhetorical embrace from Obama would likely be a burden, not a help. Still, President Obama should encourage Morsi to delay the referendum and organize a new constitutional assembly that is representative of all factions and to give that body sufficient time to write a constitution that will endure. More likely, though, hope will continue to guide US policy.



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