Egypt's political turmoil dimming chances of democratic transition

Egypt's transition from dictatorship is chaotic and murky. President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood's showdown with protesters are dimming the chances of a positive outcome.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Egyptian protesters clash with security forces near Tahrir square, in Cairo, Wednesday, Nov. 28.

Remember when there was a so-called "Egypt transition process?" An orderly series of democratic steps to set the country on a better path than the one it left behind? It went like this: A short period of military rule to be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections, a drafting of a new constitution, and a  referendum to ratify it.

Well, the notion of an orderly process has been in question for some time. Military rule lasted far longer than promised, the promised new parliament has still not arrived, and Egypt is in many ways, more tumultuous today than it was in the heady days of January and February 2011 when millions threw off their fears of the police state and pushed Hosni Mubarak out of power.

And events of the past few days seem to have settled it: Egypt's process is now an ad hoc, chaotic mess, and the prospects for a democratic order emerging from this still rolling transition have dimmed substantially.

To see that, all you had to do was look at the rowdy hundreds of thousands who took to the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities yesterday, in some places sacking the local offices of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that propelled President Mohamed Morsi to power earlier this year. (Gert Van Langendonck, who was in Tahrir yesterday, says the protest in that location was calm and orderly. Still, other parts of downtown witnessed violence, as did at least three other Egyptian cities.)

In Tahrir Square they were shouting the same slogans against Mr. Morsi, brought to power less than five months ago through a free election, that they shouted against Hosni Mubarak after his 30 years at the helm of a military dictatorship.

"The people demand the fall of the regime!" chanted the throng of Tahrir protesters, many of whom had cast their vote for Morsi in June to prevent the candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, a close political ally of the ousted Mubarak.

A tad impatient? Perhaps.

But it's been almost 22 months since Mubarak was pushed out and all the transition has accomplished has been the creation of a Muslim Brotherhood president who voted himself near dictatorial powers last week. There was a parliamentary election (dominated by the Brotherhood but with plenty of secular factions obtaining seats as well) but the results were annulled by an Egyptian court in June. 

Morsi and Islamist allies to the right of the Muslim Brotherhood (the Nour Party's Salafis) look set to ram through a new constitution that will push Egypt hard in the direction of becoming an Islamic state. An ally of Morsi's on the constitutional drafting committee said the committee hopes to be done tomorrow with a final draft and put it to a popular referendum soon. That's not going to mollify the opposition whose principal complaint is that the new constitution will be an Islamist imposition on all the people of Egypt. 

And from the outside looking in, there is clearly a thirst for political alternatives to the Brotherhood from secular-leaning Egyptians, but so far the opposition has been unable to unite into anything like an organized force against the country's ascendant Islamists.

As a practical matter, that has left average Egyptians with two choices for political participation: Backing Morsi, or going to Tahrir to raise their voices in protest.

A 'temporary' move?

President Morsi insists his powers are temporary, and his spokesmen have insisted he has had little choice but to work around judges who are holdovers from the Mubarak area that stood in the way of a new constitution. They say he won the presidency fair and square, and should be given time to lead Egypt in a new direction.

But human history has far more examples of extraordinary powers "briefly" assumed that stretched into various authoritarianisms than of those used to create democracies. And the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi are busy cutting deals with the institutions of Mubarak's state – his still politically powerful military and various ministries – to cement their power. Most of the so-called liberals who were in the constitutional assembly (the body that is supposed to draft a new constitution) walked off the job, claiming that Islamists were simply ignoring them.

Now, large swathes of Egyptian's judiciary are promising to go on strike in protest of Morsi's actions. The judges, like many appointed bureaucrats from the Mubarak era, have had far more input into politics lately than opposition politicians or the public, and so may get somewhere, though the battle lines are hardening.

Nathan Brown, a leading constitutional scholar, is worried. Writing in the Egypt Independent, he points out that Morsi has a point, but that doesn't make the situation any less fraught.

The president was reacting to real problems when he immunized his decisions and the Constituent Assembly from judicial oversight. The Brotherhood had been heavy-handed in picking the Constituent Assembly, but it did so fully within the rules drafted last year.  And it is not clear that the opposition would have been satisfied with any compromise over the composition of the body or its work. The Brotherhood’s complaint — that many critics were averse to allowing election results to have any impact on the document or its authors — is firmly grounded.

... Morsy’s defense of his moves as designed to support democracy unfortunately recall the remark attributed to an American soldier during the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”... But while the crisis is not fully a product of the actors’ intentions, Egyptians will not find a path forward unless their leaders find within themselves an intention to resolve their differences through compromise. The constitutional process is badly broken, but it can still be repaired.

Morsi has insisted, for now, that he's not going to change course. And that potentially puts Egypt on an even more dangerous path. While the Brotherhood told its supporters to stay off the streets during yesterday's big anti-Morsi protests, in order to avoid clashes, the group has called for mass demonstrations in support of Morsi on Saturday, which could lead to clashes.

Rhetoric getting heated

The rhetoric of various officials around Morsi has also grown more heated. A spokesman for the Brother's Freedom and Justice Party wrote today that it's "Very sad to see 'genuine opposition' allied with 'corrupt Mubarak cronies.'" One of the Brotherhood's official Twitter account wrote yesterday that if the "opposition thinks the significance of today is # of Tahrir protestors... they should brace for millions in support of the elected" Morsi while dismissing the Tahrir protests as composed partly of "pro-Mubarak felols" (felol means "remnant" and is used derisively to denote Mubarak cronies and hangers on).

With the "process" gummed up, the opposition interested only, it seems, in using street power to prevent Morsi's agenda from moving forward, and Morsi currently the only official in Egypt with any democratic legitimacy, the stage looks set for a showdown. And what then? Sufficient rioting might bring the military back into the political forefront again.

Or even a long enough showdown with the judges. It was only in August that Morsi issued decrees asserting civilian authority over the military's in the political transition. His moves last week were precipitated by fears that the courts were about to roll all that back.

For now, more chaos and confusion seems certain. All else is cloudy.

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