Marc Lynch

Reflections on Egypt’s Latest Crisis

    or… a requiem for Calvinball With the passage of its controversial constitution through a referendum marred by low turnout, a deeply dysfunctional process, and bitter recriminations on all sides, Egypt’s latest crisis has finally moved on to a new stage. This offers an opportunity to take a step back from the intensity of ...

Professor Emeritus of Egypt Studies Bill Watterson
Professor Emeritus of Egypt Studies Bill Watterson


  or… a requiem for Calvinball

With the passage of its controversial constitution through a referendum marred by low turnout, a deeply dysfunctional process, and bitter recriminations on all sides, Egypt’s latest crisis has finally moved on to a new stage. This offers an opportunity to take a step back from the intensity of crisis, the polarized rhetoric, mutual dehumanization and feverish speculation which has dominated the last month.  What has unfolded in Egypt is not a morality play, with good and evil clashing by night. Nor was it the unfolding of an Islamist master plan.  This was the worst kind of Calvinball politics: hardball, strategic power plays by sometimes obtuse and occasionally shrewd actors in a polarized political environment with no clear rules, unsettled institutions, high stakes, intense mutual mistrust and extremely imperfect information.  

As bad as the last few weeks in Egypt have been, there is a somewhat optimistic counter-narrative to be told.  I have the same sense now that I did this May in my "Egypt’s Brilliant Mistakes" post:  for all the horrible political decisions on all sides, the stunningly mismanaged transition, and the mandatory mass panic of the analytical community, Egypt still has a chance to muddle through and end up in a pretty decent place by this coming spring.  It would not be the worst outcome for a chaotic transition if Egypt emerges in March with a constitution establishing institutional powers and limiting the powers of the Presidency, a democratically elected but weakened President, a Muslim Brotherhood in power but facing unprecedented levels of scrutiny and political opposition, the military back in the barracks, a mobilized and newly relevant political opposition, and a legitimately elected Parliament with a strong opposition bloc.  The costs may have been too high and the process a horror movie, but getting a Constitution in place and Parliamentary elections on the books puts Egypt just a bit closer to that vision. 

My guarded optimism comes in part from my diagnosis of the problem. For a while now I’ve been arguing that the core of Egypt’s political problem is the institutional vacuum and absence of rules which creates radical uncertainty about the future.   This was the point of my "Calvinball" analogy, of a political game where actors made up the rules as they went along without referee or limits other than the response of other players.    This, as Professor Watterson points out above, "lends itself to certain abuses."  Morsi’s, for instance. 

When Morsi made his move in late November, the Presidency was operating in an extremely dangerous institutional and political vacuum, with no Parliament, no Constitution, disorganized and fragmented political opposition, a politicized and erratic judiciary, diminishing returns on street mobilization, mounting economic problems, and rising social and political polarization.  An  overheated information environment combined with the effects of this extreme institutional uncertainty to produce a truly toxic political environment.   That’s why simply getting a constitution in place, even if it isn’t a perfect constitution, could have significant positive effects. This would for the first time since the revolution establish the rules of the game, addressing this core institutional void.

The institutional void inevitably drove polarization and fear. Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to hegemony, Morsi could claim unchecked power because of the  absence of a constitution, the judiciary’s dissolution of Parliament, and the deficiencies of the opposition.  Egyptians had to worry about the possibility that Morsi would create a theocracy because there was nothing to definitively prevent him to do so, and those fears of the possible were fueled by the reckless moves and rhetoric of a wide range of Islamist figures from the Brotherhood and beyond.  

Morsi’s claiming unlimited power did not make it so, however.  In the face of popular pressure, he quickly abandoned his outrageous immunity decree, dropped his controversial new prosecutor general, and withdrew planned changes to food subsidies in a matter of hours. The political opposition is more relevant and the street more mobilized than it has been for a long time, while the Brotherhood is under greater popular pressure than ever before.  What’s more, the crisis rapidly eroded the international goodwill he gained through his mediation of the Gaza ceasefire, and has complicated his pursuit of desperately needed economic assistance.  The rapidly spiraling economic crisis, and the measures which Morsi’s government will need to take to meet it, will likely further cut into his and the Brotherhood’s popularity. The costs of this informal pushback  — the dead citizens, the intense social polarization, the lost trust — were too high, though. 

Morsi’s appalling decree granting himself unchecked powers and his subsequent move to rush through a hastily completed Constitution showed poor political judgment. But it isn’t as if there were a better Constitutional process realistically on offer, given Egypt’s fragmented political class, absence of social consensus or trust, and horribly mismanaged transition.  As valuable as a "good" Constitution which commanded real consensus might have been, nothing in the record of the last year and a half suggests that it was in the cards.  Morsi’s power grab was not a particularly "Islamist" one, and the sharp response to his initiatives demonstrates the limits of his powers more than it shows his ability to act as some sort of absolute dictator.  It may be a mediocre constitution full of worrying ambiguities, but Egypt has not been remade as either a theocracy or a new dictatorship.  

A remarkable number of key constitutional clauses refer back to interpretation by law.  I hope that the Shura Council, elected at a time of political exhaustion and apathy, doesn’t do anything significant on those before the election and seating of a new Parliament.  I also hope that the opposition sticks to its stated plans to form a unified electoral list for those elections, doesn’t get sidetracked by debates over boycotting, and is able to convert its political energy into electoral success.  Even those who would prefer a boycott should recognize the high stakes.  An Islamist sweep two months from now could allow for some truly alarming legislative encroachments on personal freedoms and civil rights.  But a strong electoral performance by the opposition could also – finally – create meaningful checks on Presidential authority for the first time in modern Egyptian history.   The best case here would be that the opposition can build on the energy of its protests, its newfound unity and the strongly felt antipathy towards the Muslim Brotherhood, to compete effectively two months from now in Parliamentary elections. That would position it to legislate more liberal interpretations of the Constitution, and to block any Presidential efforts to impose a more autocratic or more Islamist agenda. 

Finally, what lessons should be learned about the Muslim Brotherhood from this crisis?  The Brotherhood’s enthusiastic embrace of quite nasty street politics and sectarian rhetoric understandably frightened and outraged a wide swathe of the Egyptian public.  But the crisis has revealed little new about the Muslim Brotherhood’s "true nature", other than that its years in opposition prepared it poorly for the absence of the political limits which shaped its ideology, strategy, and internal organization over decades.  It suffers from the departure of many key reformist leaders and most creative, driven youth who had been so crucial to the evolution of its political thought and practice in the previous decade.  Faced with a radically new political environment and with its conservative wing internally ascendent, the Brotherhood has become increasingly rigid internally, more high-handed and defensive, and less willing to compromise or treat its political rivals respectfully.  Its decision to seek the Presidency after promising to not do so continues to be revealed as a great strategic blunder. The mediocre turnout at the constitutional referendum suggests that  they will be punished at the ballot box for these failings — if their political opponents can work effectively to capitalize on the moment.  

I do think that most analysts have read too much about the Brotherhood’s ideology into its political behavior over the last month.  Just consider the counter-factual. Morsi’s frustration with this stalemated, overheated political scene would have likely been shared by any other President who had emerged from that intensely contested June election.  A President Shafik or Moussa or Abou el-Fotouh or Baradei would likely have become equally frustrated with judicial obstruction, failed dialogues, and institutional paralysis.  If, like Morsi, this President had tried to then govern through force d’majeur, it would have (and should have) produced great concern and condemnation.  When Muslim Brothers and Salafis then took to the streets to denounce liberal overreach and a new Mubarakism and call for a renewed revolution, their critics in Egypt and abroad would have leaped to portray this as decisive evidence as the inability of the Brotherhood to accept democracy.  In that counterfactual debate, many shoes would be on different feet. 

I realize that this is a perhaps overly optimistic reading of Egyptian politics.  I recognize the intensity of the political passions unleashed during this crisis, the legitimate doubts over the intentions of the Brotherhood and the military, and the many possible ways in which things could go horribly wrong.  But I also think it’s important to visualize a pathway towards a more successful transition. What Egypt needs now is a roadmap towards completing the Egyptian transition to an instituionalized democratic system, and to head off the polarization and alienation rather than fan the flames.   Let’s hope that Egypt can once again muddle through and get there.


Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark