As the government of the Muslim Brotherhood faced rioting, chaos, and military intervention, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi must have asked himself, “Do I really want this job?” In some sense, the presidency was the political golden apple sought by the Brotherhood for nearly a century. Indeed, President Morsi had the distinction of being Egypt’s first democratically elected president ever. Now that prize has turned to ashes.
Many in the West might say “good riddance.” But you can’t dismiss the event that glibly. The arrival of the Brotherhood into top positions of power in Egypt was not a fluke, not an accident of history. Like it or not, Islamists of various stripes – moderate, radical, violent, peaceful, flexible, doctrinaire – have been at the heart of political opposition to entrenched, often Western-supported dictatorships across the Arab world. Their vision of political values is homegrown, stemming organically out of Islamic culture, not borrowed and grafted wholesale from the European Enlightenment.
In Islamic political thought, the quest for social justice as a reflection of God’s will ranks at the top of political values, along with the need for the ruler to consult with the people, and the requirement to enforce Islamic law. That latter stipulation, however, has been variously understood and applied in quite diverse ways over different times and places in Islamic history – and even today. Islamists have generally been respected as grassroots elements fighting against dictatorship; they have been jailed, tortured and killed for the cause. We should never be surprised when Islamists win elections after the fall of hated dictatorships. Islamists have long had moral authority on their side.
But in Cairo in 2012, they suddenly came to power, quite unprepared for the tasks of daily administration and without a cadre of experienced government bureaucrats. “Islam is the solution” had been their chief slogan over the decades. OK, that’s maybe a nice thought, but of course people demand to know more. What specific policies do you propose to meet a broad range of challenges? How will you implement them? In fairness to Mr. Morsi, the situation he inherited might have overwhelmed almost any possible president, particularly when urgent tasks could no longer be dealt with by mere fiat. In one sense he had ended up being the “accidental candidate” among Brotherhood leaders.
Sadly, in the first transition in Egyptian history in 2011 from dictatorship to democratic practice, the rules of the game were written as they went, and the learning curve – for the president, parliament, bureaucrats, political parties, the political opposition, police, army, and voters – is steep. Demonstrations and rioting cannot serve as the chief mechanism for transmitting the public’s policy preferences. Regrettably, this time, the entire spectrum of the Egyptian political opposition seemed happy to revert to extra-legal measures to bring change rather than work, for sure more slowly, through specified legitimate electoral channels.
And all parties to the game in the initial rush to power had cut deals and bargains and bent regulations and procedures in their own interests, inventing rules as they went along. Of course, opportunism is a familiar scene in all governance, even in the United States. But rarely have the stakes been so high, the public expectations so unrealistic, the tasks so urgent, the needs of the long-suffering public so pressing, as in Egypt. And what’s more, Morsi and his government, while hardly extreme or radical, could not bring convincing competence to his job.
Ideally, Morsi should have served until the next elections. Exerting extra-legal means of changing governments in Egypt, yet again, defeats the few democratic gains made two years ago. A Brotherhood actually voted out of office would have been more politically chastened and would have actually learned something, compared with a Brotherhood that sees itself removed illegally and by force. But make no mistake: The Brotherhood, and Islam as a political value in politics, is not going away. The evolution of Islamist political thinking will continue to evolve in this Egyptian school of hard knocks; we can look at Turkey, where a moderate Islamist movement found itself repeatedly tested over the decades until it emerged with the pragmatic, highly successful ruling party in power today.
Several outcomes are now possible. Disappearance of the Brotherhood is not one of them. Morsi and the Islamists may nourish bitter grievances at the travesty of democratic practice. If they are not allowed to feature somewhat prominently in whatever next government is set up, they could be a dangerous and aggrieved element; they are simply too big and too important to be excluded. Alternatively, the Brotherhood, and even more the fundamentalist Salafi Islamists, may now just wonder: Is attaining political office – the assumption of overwhelmingly daunting economic, social and political problems – a prize really worth having at this juncture? The credibility of the Brotherhood among much of the population has now suffered a major, though not fatal, blow. Many Islamist politicians may decide that it’s better to maintain a movement, or remain in the political opposition, than to hold the reins as a way to influence public policy.
Democratic Egypt has failed in its first test – in the irresponsible actions of both the government and the opposition, including the “liberals.” Will Egypt now revert to another decade of gray military tutelage, having learned nothing and back to square one? Or will its population be able to fashion a new political arrangement, respected by both winners and losers of elections, to try once again?
Graham E. Fuller, a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA, has written extensively about Turkey; he is the author, most recently, of “A World Without Islam” and “Three Truths and a Lie,” a memoir.