Cairo/Brussels - Celebrated by millions of Egyptians, yesterday's announcement that Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, has won the presidential election undoubtedly marks a milestone in the country’s history.
Still, this event does little to resolve the fundamental problems that existed beforehand: eighteen months after the uprising that led to President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the political system is paralysed, no institutions enjoy the required legitimacy or credibility to break the logjam, all political actors have been discredited to varying degrees, and societal polarisation has reached new heights. To salvage the transition and lay the foundation for a more stable polity, political actors need to do today what they ought to have done in February 2011: seek agreement on a set of principles that would respect all sides’ vital interests while ensuring a peaceful democratic transition.
The deteriorating situation is the culmination of a mismanaged process that, from the very beginning, has lacked clear direction and agreed rules of the game. Political players – including the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Muslim Brotherhood and more liberal, secular forces – are proceeding in the dark, unaccustomed to the new environment, distrustful of one another and quick to resort to extra-institutional means, whether issuance of arbitrary decisions or street politics, to bolster their respective positions.
The result is clear for all to see. With the recent SCAF measures – restoring a form of martial law that allows the military to arrest civilians without judicial warrant; establishing a military-dominated National Defence Council; and promulgating a Supplementary Constitutional Declaration that enlarges its executive powers, awards it legislative authority and grants it considerable latitude over the drafting of a new constitution – and the Supreme Constitutional Court’s (SCC) invalidation of parliamentary elections, the transition risks coming full circle.
The outcome of the three rounds of voting, the first democratic ballots in modern Egyptian history, has been nullified or seriously questioned. The constitutional changes have in effect repealed the March 2011 constitutional referendum, both substantively and procedurally. The parliamentary dissolution has erased the legislative elections in which 30 million participated. And the presidential election was mired in controversy both before it was held (disputes over the disqualification of some candidates and qualification of others) and after (competing claims of victory, accompanied by charges of fraud and capped by delays in the announcement of the result). In this context, serious questions remain as to whether the promised transfer of power from the military to elected civilian authorities will occur by the end of June.
For now, the prospect remains of duelling constitutional principles with no constitution; duelling understandings of how to create the constituent assembly; duelling legislative bodies (the dissolved parliament and the SCAF); duelling conceptions of SCAF prerogatives (eg, whether it can dissolve parliament or issue constitutional rules); duelling perceptions of executive authority; duelling mass demonstrations setting one Egypt against the other; and no agreed mechanism or legitimate arbiter to settle these disputes. Divisions reach deeper, pitting army against civilians, Islamists against secularists and Muslims against Coptic Christians. Add an economic crisis (60 per cent decline in foreign currency reserves, massive budget deficit, soaring unemployment, stagflation, near junk-status credit rating) that cannot be tackled in the absence of political stability and consensus and this is a recipe for persisting conflict and a possible trigger to escalating violence.
The behaviour of the various parties to date hardly inspires confidence. Viewed by many as responsible for brutal violence against protesters, as seeking to protect its interests by reviving the old regime’s networks and as claiming for itself the roles of judge and party, the SCAF has squandered much of its legitimacy. Yet, it continues to believe otherwise, attempting to muscle through critical political decisions by relying on superior force and invoking its assumed greater knowledge of what is best for the country. Little wonder that many in Egypt suspect it of conducting a soft coup.
For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood has appeared to place all its bets on its electoral strength, shunning serious efforts to reassure key constituencies. It has antagonised the military, turned its back on the revolutionary movement, failed to reach out to secular forces, made insufficient gestures toward the Coptic Christian minority, threatened supporters of the old regime and repeatedly reneged on its pledges. In recent days, it has taken some steps to extend a hand to others in the opposition but far more is needed after eighteen months of snubbing them. Overall, although it enjoys formal democratic legitimacy, the Brotherhood has rallied against itself too broad and too determined a section of society for electoral mathematics alone to be decisive.
As for the revolutionary movement, disdainful of politics yet facing overwhelming popular fatigue at the prospect of renewed protests, it is distrustful of the SCAF but fearful of the Islamists. This makes its members at times flirt with the idea of sacrificing their democratic principles on the altar of their secular faith – thus turning them into easy prey for the military’s divide-and-conquer tactics, which seek to set them against the Islamists so that the two faces of the opposition do not unite behind an expeditious transition. All of which threatens to marginalise the revolutionary movement and render it increasingly irrelevant.
There is little mystery about the better way forward. Key political actors need to negotiate a set of understandings governing the transition, including a clear timetable, allocation of interim powers, constitution-drafting principles and core interests that the final document must protect. Movement should be swift. Morsi is due to be sworn in on 1 July and, already, crises loom: over whether parliament will convene and whether the president will take his oath before parliament (consistent with the March 2011 constitutional amendments approved by referendum) or before the Supreme Constitutional Court (consistent with the SCAF’s supplementary principles). Suggested ideas for these understandings include:
Formation by president-elect Morsi of a national unity government, led by a credible independent figure, and selection of a vice president reflecting Egypt’s ideological and sectarian diversity;
the SCAF's agreement not to dissolve the existing constituent assembly and name another; in return, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists would form a more broadly representative body, substituting respected independents and legal experts for some Islamists;
agreement to rerun the one third of parliamentary seats elected via individual candidacies that the SCC ruled unconstitutional, as opposed to dissolving the entire parliament;
cancellation of the justice ministry decree enabling the military to arrest and detain civilians without a warrant;
annulment of those provisions in the supplementary constitutional declaration that contradict full transfer of power to civilians and would usurp powers of the president and legislature;
the SCAF’s commitment to fully disengage from the political arena once the constitution has been written and ratified through a popular referendum; and
the Muslim Brotherhood’s agreement to seek its legalisation and make its finances fully transparent.
Responsibility lies squarely with the SCAF and the Brotherhood. By respecting the wishes of a majority of Egyptians with regard to the presidential elections, the military has shown that it can act wisely. But it should not view this as a concession giving it a free hand to delay a full transition. Morsi’s victory speech aimed at being reassuring and consensual, but the Islamists must do far more and resist the temptation of triumphalism that has marked virtually all of their prior successes.
Throughout this process, the international community – and notably the West – has been caught between the need to support a democratic transition and the enormous suspicions that continue to taint its actions due to a chequered history of excessive interference and support for authoritarian rule. Achieving a proper balance between pressuring the SCAF without triggering widespread hostility will not be easy, especially at a time of heightened xenophobia and mistrust of anything coming from the outside.
At a minimum, the international community should express a strong commitment to helping the economy through what inevitably will be a trying period once it is clear the country is on a path to a genuine democratic transition. Assistance would include the International Monetary Fund’s substantial soft loan package; financial aid from various countries; and encouragement of foreign direct investment. At the same time, key outside actors ought to unambiguously condemn attempts to undermine democratically elected civilian institutions.
Considering the stakes, the historical rupture embodied in the uprising and the fears of so many core constituencies, what is most surprising, arguably, is that there has not been more violence – that Egyptians, by and large, have engaged in spirited debate, taken to the streets peacefully and participated in electoral politics. Morsi’s victory, though a bitter disappointment to a large number of Egyptians, is a signal of a continued transition. Yet all this is enormously fragile, a brittle reality at the mercy of a single significant misstep. To right the course of this perilous transition will require different and wiser steering from all who, for the past eighteen months, have had a hand in it.