The Middle East’s largest and most pivotal state is careening toward a grave crisis as hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Egypt call for embattled Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to step down. On Monday, protesters looted and burned the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Mr. Morsi. This dangerous new confrontation threatens not only to derail the country’s uncertain democratic transition, but also to unleash a wave of economic and social chaos.
Protesters want President Morsi, who was elected last year, and his Muslim Brotherhood regime deposed via early presidential elections. The immediate need, though, is for Morsi and opposition leaders to negotiate a way forward together. That will have to involve agreeing to fix Egypt’s disastrous constitutional order – which has fueled deep distrust in Morsi. Better institutions won’t magically resolve the political impasse, but the impasse cannot possibly be resolved without better institutions – a democratically elected parliament, for instance, and a much less powerful presidency.
The government’s critics have legitimate, serious grievances: Morsi and his allies in the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), have seemed much more interested in pressing a narrow and divisive Islamist agenda than in actually running a country or pursuing desperately needed economic and political reforms. Their sheer incompetence at keeping Egypt functioning is quickly turning even the Brotherhood’s electoral supporters against them.
Much of the unfolding disaster, however, precedes Morsi. It can be traced back to undemocratic decisions about government that were made shortly after the January 2011 uprising that forced dictator Hosni Mubarak from power.
Those decisions were made by the interim governing body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Instead of taking the time to craft a durable constitutional order through a consensual process, the military leadership gave this responsibility to a parliament that had yet to be formed.
That parliament, which took office in January 2012 and was dominated by the FJP and even more conservative Islamist elements, predictably mucked up the job by creating a largely self-serving, heavily Islamist constitutional drafting committee that was only minimally agreeable to Egypt’s many political, economic, and religious groups.
But even before Morsi won the final June 2012 run-off to claim the presidency, a court ruling dissolved the six-month-old parliament. This not only deprived Egypt of any countervailing institutional check on the presidency; it has also created a situation where the country’s opposition has had no democratic channel through which to express its dissatisfaction with the current government.
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.
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.