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Opinion

Egypt's President Morsi and opposition must talk – and fix the constitution

Protesters are demanding President Morsi's resignation and have burned the headquarters of his backers, the Muslim Brotherhood. The way out of this crisis is for Morsi and opposition leaders to negotiate a path forward together. That must include a constitution that is representative of Egypt.

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The most recent political crisis stemmed from Morsi’s appointment of Islamist politicians to govern Egypt’s provinces, including the tone-deaf decision to appoint a member of the Islamic Group to lead Luxor. This is the very organization that perpetrated the horrifying terrorist attack that killed 58 foreign tourists there in 1997. The governor resigned due to the controversy.

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Why does the president of Egypt still get to appoint the governors of the country’s provinces? In most democratic states, candidates compete to lead provincial  governments. If a ruling party loses a number of regional elections, citizens are sending a strong signal that they prefer the opposition and want changes in policy.

Of course, no such system of signaling exists in Egypt, not only because there is no legal parliament, but also because Morsi and his allies rushed through a constitution that kept all policymaking centralized in Cairo – a highly inefficient system that’s more akin to authoritarianism than anything else. The resulting government seems incapable of keeping the lights on, let alone devising solutions to Egypt’s most intractable problems.

This is why Egypt’s politics spilled disastrously into the streets, again, this past Sunday, with protests continuing. Opposition forces are calling it Tamarod (“rebellion”), yet they seem indifferent to the implications of forcing a democratically-elected president from power. Egypt – with its currency in free-fall, its unemployment skyrocketing, and food insecurity plaguing increasing numbers of poor citizens, can ill afford another lengthy disruption of normal life.

It may be tempting for all parties to replay 2011. But Egypt’s military must avoid the trap that is being set for it by both sides – either by hunting down Islamists, gunning down protesters, or staging an intervention. Military elites not only have no business governing Egypt, they are also terrible at it.

But they also must be the ones to recognize and act on the inadequacy of Egypt’s ailing democratic institutions, not by ousting Morsi but by quietly forcing him to work together with the opposition until there is a consensus constitution and a plan for implementing it peacefully.

That plan must be to fundamentally reshape the constitutional order, which is unworkable, and to replace it with a more equitable set of arrangements – which would ideally include granting more powers to parliament, prohibiting the trial of civilians in military courts, and devolving some power and responsibility to elected regional governments.

Crucially, these reforms would make it harder for any political force, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, to abuse its power.

In the meantime, Morsi and his opponents must recognize the necessity of negotiations before they are all upstaged by a military coup or the kind of Iraq-style state collapse that everyone now fears. Cairo’s bumbling rulers and their furious opposition would do well to remember that the people wanted, as the famous revolutionary slogan went, the fall of the regime – not the fall of Egypt itself.

David M. Faris is an assistant professor of political science at Roosevelt University.

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