The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s political crisis

President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi’s support for President Barack Obama’s truce initiative during the fighting ...

Ellis Goldberg
Ellis Goldberg

President Mohamed Morsi and his advisors cannot have expected that his November 22 constitutional declaration would throw Egypt into a renewed state of turmoil. That it has speaks volumes to the immense changes that have occurred in the country during the past two years. Morsi’s support for President Barack Obama’s truce initiative during the fighting in Gaza clearly reassured the U.S. president that under a Muslim Brotherhood (MB) president Egypt would keep the peace with Israel. Because this has been the dominant concern within the U.S. foreign policy elite about the Egyptian revolution, Morsi had good reason to believe that the United States and the Egyptian Armed Forces would not object to his domestic decisions.   

That Morsi’s move has proven, in a deeply divided country, to have been a serious error of judgment is worth reflection. Early responses, especially in the United States, have either been self-satisfied sighs of recognition that the MB have finally revealed their true nature or, alternatively, sharp criticism of a westernized liberal minority that refused to accept gracefully the verdict of democracy mandating a stronger role for Islam, the MB, and Morsi himself. 

Divisions among U.S. commentators mirror divisions in Egypt. Many Morsi supporters argue that the new constitution is the most democratic one ever produced on Egyptian soil. It guarantees the right to start parties and open newspapers without prior approval; it bans torture and espouses the dignity of the prisoner. Opponents argue, in contrast, that it is an extremely bad constitution. It gives unelected religious figures the right of prior review of legislation and it allows the Armed Forces to function independently.

Let us, if only for argument, grant some truth in each of these pictures. The question still is why has there been such a vast outrush of anger at Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate he was, and why has it been sustained now for more than a week and a half. There have been demonstrations not only in Cairo and Alexandria but in most of the large provincial cities, with protesters numbering in the tens of thousands. Morsi rescinded his original constitutional decree on Saturday, issuing a new one, which addressed some issues of contention. Regardless, protests have raged, with calls for fresh demonstrations on Tuesday.

For the moment we can only go on impressions, however the political divisions appear, for the first time, to be linked to social conflict. Reports from the textile capital, Mahallah, in the middle of the Egyptian Delta, are that protesters took over the city hall and declared themselves independent of what they called "the Muslim Brothers government." Leaders of the insurgent trade union movements there have long evinced opposition to the MB, which has sought to gain control of their movement. In 1981 Assiut was the scene of an uprising designed to create an Islamic emirate by supporters of Abbud al-Zumr, one of the organizers of the assassination of Anwar Sadat and today a prominent Salafi politician. On December 6, thousands of people there marched to protest against Morsi behind a banner calling for Muslim-Christian unity. In Port Said, as elsewhere, already a week ago there were pitched battles between youth opposed to the MB and their members.

So a useful question is why, not quite two years after massive and sustained demonstrations led to the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, are hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of Egyptians out on the streets again? If the opposition politicians are shallow and self-interested, why is anyone heeding their calls? And yet why, if the Brotherhood represents the overwhelming majority of Egyptians — whether democratic or authoritarian in their inner beings — are they faced with such massive anger? Observers of attacks on their offices and members agree that — regrettable as such attacks may be — they are largely spontaneous. The police, it is true, often do not protect the MB but they seem long since to have decided to vanish whenever violence threatens anywhere.

The answer no longer lies in a draft constitution that very few of the demonstrators, on either side, are likely to have read. Egyptians along with the citizens of a great many other places have learned what is on paper is only a part of the constitution. The other, most important, part lies in the institutions that give the constitutional language presence in everyday life. To some degree this means the habits and choices of low level officials and to some degree it means the courts. And the simple and sad reality for the Brotherhood is that a great many Egyptians distrust, dislike, or fear them and worry that, having come to control the legislature and central executive, they plan to take over the courts as well as staff many of the lower levels of the government.

President Morsi has been unable to allay this distrust, fear, and dislike and over the last week he and his allies have, through words and actions, intensified it. This may be unfair and its results may be tragic, but it remains a profoundly political issue with which he and any Egyptian politicians who aspire to lead the country will ultimately have to deal.

Morsi and his advisors also seem to believe that they can use any stratagem, as long as it remains formally valid, to accomplish their substantive ends. In this they are, regrettably, all too like Egyptian governments of the last 60 years. One of Morsi’s advisors admitted that, having been unable to remove former Public Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud by ordinary means, Morsi simply changed the constitution to make it feasible (this was supposed to be one of the sections of the declaration that rendered it palatable to the public). Equally remarkably, the MB members of the Constituent Assembly even overrode the advice of the assembly chair and ally, Hosam al-Gheriani, to deny former leaders of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party political rights for a decade and to grant members of the government’s prosecutorial staff judicial immunity. Al-Gheriani was reduced to leaving the dais of the assembly in protest against these provisions. He described the one as political vengeance and the other as an assault on the rights of citizens.

There are probably very few sections of Egyptian society that the Brotherhood and its allies in the Salafi movements have not antagonized. The Brotherhood promised that it would run for only 30 percent of the seats in parliament; then only 50 percent; but finally it competed for nearly 70 percent. The Brotherhood asserted that it would not run a candidate for the presidency and expelled one of its prominent members, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, when he announced his plans to compete. Finally they selected Morsi to run. In the wake of the March 2011 referendum on revising the 1971 constitution, some of their members asserted that the nearly 25 percent of Egyptians who voted "no" could emigrate to Canada if they didn’t want to live with the outcome, namely an Islamic state.

The vision of an Islamic society voiced by members of the MB is no more attractive. In 2011 Sobhi Saleh, a prominent appellate attorney and member of the MB, announced that Muslim Brothers should marry within the group rather than outside. Other Muslim women, he intimated, were not worthy.   

Morsi made his own case in a televised address to the country December 6 and   although everyone heard the same words they sounded very different to his supporters and his opponents. He can, on occasion, be animated in television interviews but he is not a warm personality when giving formal speeches. He offered little in the way of compromise. He did distinguish between honest demonstrators who disagree and the minority who, he claimed, had committed murder and mayhem and he invited members of the opposition to join him at the presidential palace to discuss the post-referendum future. This they promptly rejected as irrelevant to the crisis at hand.

He is either unaware or unwilling to admit that Egypt is now passing through a major political crisis that requires extraordinary political skill he does not seem to possess. Instead, having discovered that the imposing but ultimately insufficiently numerous or well-armed young men of the MB cannot restore order, he has decided to return the armed forces to the street, giving them the authority to arrest civilians. If, as Morsi’s supporters have long claimed, he brought the army under civilian control, this is a time of unpleasant awakening for he is the same man who will now shelter under martial law. This is a martial law of a weakened army trying to keep watch over a society whose divisions are increasingly raw. But, it is martial law nonetheless, despite what Morsi and his supporters, including those in the White House, choose to call it or to excuse it.

Ellis Goldberg is a professor of political science at the University of Washington, specializing in Middle Eastern politics.

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