- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO — So far, there has been only one ironclad rule in post-Morsy Egypt: Don’t trust breaking news. Reports that hardline Islamist groups had abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood? Reversed. News that Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie was arrested? Proven false when he appeared at a large Brotherhood rally.
And now: another doozy. On Saturday, the official state news agency reported that opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei would be sworn in as the new prime minister later that evening. A few hours later, however, the decision was reversed as the tenuous political alliance that supported Mohamed Morsy’s ouster began to fray.
Achieving consensus in Egyptian politics is proving easier said than done. With ElBaradei’s candidacy for the premiership, the fractures among the diverse political forces that came together to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood are coming to the fore. Whoever emerges as the country’s next prime minister will be charged with managing this increasingly unwieldy alliance: He will need all of his skills to keep it together and make the sort of political progress that will justify the turmoil of the past week.
The hitch in ElBaradei’s rise came from the Salafist Nour Party, which abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood by throwing its weight behind the military-guided transition plan. But while the Nour Party had its problems with Morsy, the hardline Islamist movement had no love for the secular ElBaradei. "You criticize the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists for not sharing in their decision making, but then you do the same thing," a Nour Party official told the Wall Street Journal, in explaining their objection. "This isn’t the way of democracy or the way of dealing with a country like Egypt."
It’s a compelling point. If the Nour Party drops its support for the transition, as it threatened to do if ElBaradei was appointed, power would fall completely into the hands of a small group of electorally untested, non-Islamist politicians. The anti-Morsy political front would be taking exactly the sort of exclusionary approach to government that they criticized in their Islamist predecessors.
That’s not to say all Salafists oppose ElBaradei. "I believe he’s the right guy for the right time," said Mohammed Tolba, a founder of the moderate Salafi group Salafyo Costa. "We need someone who’s an expert, presentable, who has international relations…. He was one of the guys who called for the revolution. We cannot stand trial and error anymore."
But if Egypt’s main Salafist party gets a veto over such central decisions, what can the interim government accomplish? This isn’t going to be the last area of contention: In upcoming discussions to amend the country’s constitution, the Nour Party is undoubtedly going to fight to preserve, or even strengthen, the role of Islamic law. By trying to please everyone, Egypt’s new government runs the risk of accomplishing nothing.
This is the conundrum that ElBaradei, who is still the front-runner to become the next prime minister, will fall into should he actually land the job. While he is viewed as perhaps the most uncompromising liberal voice on Egypt’s political scene, ElBaradei’s stances have shifted considerably since entering politics. Upon his return in 2010, he allied with the Muslim Brotherhood — even clashing with secularist opposition parties in the process. Today, he is the Islamists’ public enemy number one, castigating the Morsy administration’s governance of the country in an article for Foreign Policy‘s "Failed States" issue. Following Hosni Mubarak’s fall, ElBaradei denounced the military-guided government as a "fascist regime" and resolutely refused to take part. Today, with the premiership in sight, he’s justifying the military’s arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the closing of Islamist television channels as "precautionary measures."
ElBaradei, for his part, says that a leader has to be willing to change his positions and cut deals if he wants to be successful. "It’s really essentially to accept each other — to cut a deal, if you like, you have to compromise and reconcile your differences," he told FP shortly before diving into Egyptian politics. "And you have to find the highest common denominator that you can get. You get a lot of that through psychology — it is not really substance, as you learn. It’s really respect and dialogue: These are all skills that you need wherever and whatever you do in public life. Whether you are a CEO of Coca-Cola, whether you are the head of the IAEA, or whether you are the president of a country."
The ability to adapt to political reality while still maintaining your reputation for sticking to your principles isn’t a bad trick, either. Whether it’s ElBaradei or another figure, Egypt’s new prime minister is going to need to call on all of his political skills to navigate the country through its largest crisis since Mubarak’s fall.
Evan Hill contributed reporting on this article.