A Road to Nowhere: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Failure to Negotiate a Democratic Transition in Egypt

Photo by Brandon Aitchison
This op-ed was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2. 
By Tom Dinham 

After an initially promising start upon assuming office on June 30, 2012, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood movement to which he belongs have lurched from one political crisis to the next. At each stage, an unwillingness to adapt has damaged both the popularity of the ruling movement and any remaining hopes of forging the minimal political consensus required to end the cycle of political polarization, economic deterioration, and violence that is pushing the Egyptian state to bankruptcy and its democratic experiment towards failure.

This abysmal state of affairs is rooted in both the Brotherhood’s massive overestimation of the scope of its electoral mandate and its mistaken belief that a ‘silent majority’ of Egyptians support its policies. The Brotherhood believes that this public support gives it the strength to achieve a successful democratic transition and a sweeping program of reform without engaging and compromising with opposing political forces. Instead of managing a negotiated transition to full democracy, the Brotherhood’s actions have undermined faith in the transition process itself. Unless the Brotherhood invites Egypt’s opposition currents into the transition process and addresses their concerns, the process itself will collapse and economic and security crises will deprive the Brotherhood of its ability to govern.

To be fair, President Morsi inherited a transition process badly mismanaged by Egypt’s military. In the 16 months between Hosni Mubarak’s fall and President Morsi’s assumption of office, Egypt was ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), an unelected and self-appointed military junta. SCAF used its ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ to structure the stages of democratic transition and secure a privileged position for Egypt’s armed forces in any new order. SCAF’s ‘transitional’ stewardship culminated in a situation whereby any future Egyptian president would preside over a country without a parliament or a ratified constitution, and in which SCAF itself would hold legislative power. This resulted from a Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) decision invalidating the law under which the Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly had been elected from November 28, 2011 to January 11, 2012; this invalidation led to the People’s Assembly’s dissolution.

In response to the SCC ruling, SCAF issued a declaration clarifying the powers of any incoming president. SCAF granted itself legislative power, control of military appointments, and the right to veto articles in Egypt’s draft constitution. This left the president able to form a government and ratify or reject laws. The SCC ruling on June 14, 2012 and SCAF declaration three days later totally disempowered any incoming president. The SCC decision was unusually rushed, and led to accusations of a ‘soft coup’ designed to disempower an Islamist majority.

Thus, it is with some justification that the Brotherhood viewed itself as the victim of a counter-revolution by Egypt’s ‘deep state,’ a term coined to describe a nexus of patronage and vested interests stretching across the military, security services, governmental bureaucracy, business community, and some parts of the judiciary. The Islamists generally, and the Brotherhood in particular, had won three popular ballots – for the People’s Assembly, Shura Council, and the presidency. In the absence of a new constitution, Morsi and the Islamist-dominated Shura Council stood as the only legitimate, elected actors, and thus the only legitimate candidates for managing the remainder of the transition.

The first two months of Morsi’s tenure saw a successful and broadly popular effort to exclude SCAF from its self-appointed political role. This came to a head in a presidential decree issued in August, invalidating the SCAF’s June declaration and transferring legislative and executive powers to Morsi himself. Morsi combined this declaration with a dismissal of senior SCAF leaders and the appointment of younger figures. At the time, these moves were broadly welcomed as a legitimate imposition of civilian authority over the military and thus an advancement of the goals of the revolution.

Since maneuvering itself into the position of steward of the remainder of Egypt’s democratic transition, however, the Brotherhood has shown little understanding of the consultative nature of that role. Indeed, the Brotherhood has persistently followed in the authoritarian footsteps of SCAF, anointing itself as sole guardian of Egypt’s revolution whilst ignoring or suppressing opposition elements that helped usher in the revolution. The Brotherhood’s domination of the transition process has caused broad swathes of society to disengage politically. Just like under SCAF, a dearth of avenues for legitimate political expressions leaves the ‘street’ as the only remaining arena for politics. Rather than viewing the increasingly vocal – and sometimes violent – calls of the opposition as a symptom of policy failure, the Brotherhood has instead chosen to characterize it as part of a wider ‘conspiracy’ financed and orchestrated by unnamed internal and external actors.

The most glaring example of bad faith can be seen with the birth of Egypt’s troubled new constitution. The Constituent Assembly which drafted the document was elected by the subsequently-dissolved People’s Assembly in June 2012. During the drafting process, virtually every non-Islamist member withdrew from the Constituent Assembly, accusing the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies of dominating the proceedings to push a narrowly Islamist agenda in a constitution meant to represent all sectors of Egyptian society. In particular, the Brotherhood was accused of refusing to compromise on highly contentious articles relating to Islamic Shari’a and of defining the ‘principles of Islamic Shari’a as being drawn from the Sunni corpus of jurisprudence. This new definition of the principles of Shari’a gives a much more narrowly sectarian and explicitly religious basis to Article 2, unchanged from the amended constitution of 1971, which states that “the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the primary source of legislation.”

The subject of 43 separate legal challenges to its constitutional legitimacy, the Constituent Assembly was widely expected to be dissolved by the SCC when these challenges came up for review. Were the largely-discredited Constituent Assembly to be disbanded, it would clearly have been an unwelcome setback for the Muslim Brotherhood; in the light of the unusually-timed SCC ruling to dissolve the People’s Assembly, one could even construe it as a politicized decision. It hardly represented a threat to the transition process or Morsi’s authority, however. Indeed, Morsi could simply have reconstituted a new Constituent Assembly with a slightly more generous allocation of seats to Egypt’s non-Islamist groups, engaging the opposition or at least rendering accusations of bad faith implausible. Instead, Morsi issued his constitutional declaration of November 22, 2012, giving his declarations immunity from judicial oversight and immunizing the Constituent Assembly from dissolution by the SCC. Unwilling to see his disregard for judicial oversight put to the constitutional test through a judicial ruling on the legality of the Constituent Assembly, Morsi’s Islamist allies completed the constitutional draft within a week of the constitutional declaration. The Constituent Assembly voted through all 234 articles in one all-night session against a backdrop of popular protests across the country.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s actions in November are rooted in a dangerous overestimation of both its strength and the mandate given to Morsi by the electorate. It is true that the dissolved Legislative Assembly was dominated by the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, supported by the Salafist al-Nour Party, but Morsi’s margin of victory in presidential elections half a year later was a slim 3.5 percent. Even then, many voters only voted for Morsi out of reluctance to support Shafik, widely seen as a vote for a return to the old order. Even if we were to view the massive Islamist majority in the Legislative and Shura Council elections of January 11 and February 22 as stable, that still would not legitimize ignoring the opposition when formulating the rules of the new order. Unfortunately, the prevailing belief within the Brotherhood is that the opposition merely makes a lot of noise, but that the ‘silent majority’ is with the Brothers. This majoritarian outlook reinforces the very actions that are increasing polarization and accelerating already critical security and economic crises.

Morsi’s stunning power grab has largely severed non-Islamist elements from participation in the transition process. The National Salvation Front, an umbrella group representing the majority of the liberal opposition, has now refused to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections. Instead, the liberal opposition has taken to the streets in often-violent demonstrations, the blame for which is being laid squarely on the Brotherhood. This matters for the Brotherhood because, without a modicum of political consensus, it lacks the means to achieve any of their larger objectives, and lack of progress in any direction is inflicting a terrible toll on their popularity. Without a functioning parliament and calm in the streets, the Brotherhood cannot hope to begin addressing economic issues or reform of the security forces, both key demands of the revolution.

Large-scale outbreaks of violence and disorder are becoming increasingly frequent. Rioting and strikes in the canal zone in January left over 50 dead and the entire zone, encompassing the cities of Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, under a 30-day state of emergency. Although the state of emergency has been ended, Morsi has devolved the right to declare renewed states of emergency to provincial governors. It is highly likely that these powers will be invoked again, as the factors underlying the unrest have not been addressed.

Since assuming control of Egypt’s transition, the Brotherhood’s overestimation of the extent of its electoral mandate and its ability to govern has led to a breakdown of any vestige of a consensual, rules-based transition. The resulting alienation of non-Islamist political forces and their disengagement from the political process has reinforced a cycle of instability and economic decline that is bleeding the Brotherhood not only of its support, but also of its legitimacy and ability to govern. Without meaningfully incorporating the opposition in a negotiated transition, this situation will continue to deteriorate. The catastrophic culmination of the security and economic crises may well cause a breakdown so severe as to force a renewed military takeover of political power, aborting any hope of a genuinely democratic transition.

Tom Dinham is a journalist and writer.


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