Dead end in Egypt

Trying to explain events in terms of the Muslim Brotherhood's “mistakes” leads nowhere

In general terms, the crisis in the democratic process in Egypt was predictable enough. The most powerful political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, had a broad social base, and had repeatedly reaffirmed their loyalty to the principles of pluralism and democracy.

The electoral results confirmed all this. The representatives of the Tahrir Square rebellion were left in a minority, and the disunited secular parties achieved only local representation. There remained the military obstacle, but president Morsi’s combination of the carrot and the stick against general Tantawi, head of the faction favoring continued military rule, seemed to clear the way at last. Nothing at first pointed to the deep division of society that appeared later. Approval for Morsi was as high as 75 percent, which suggests that the erosion of his popularity was not due to any preconceived hostility.

To explain things in terms of the “mistakes” of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leads to a dead end. If there was any mistake, it consisted of putting into practice, step by step, the Islamist doctrine they had always preached. The program prepared in the summer of 2007, when they first thought of forming a political party, was built around Sharia. Legislative bodies became mere organs for interpretation of Sharia. The allusion to tourists was very significant: they would have to respect Islamic law. Morsi’s recent appointment of a member of the Salafist fundamentalist group Jamaat al-Islamiyya as governor of Luxor, a tourist center, showed the direction the wind was blowing.

Every step taken by Morsi’s government in legislation and appointments reflected the Islamist formula of the Muslim Brotherhood. While the Constitution starts with conciliatory words, limiting Sharia to the vague role of “fountain of inspiration,” another article hidden in a far less visible spot noted that this function would be carried out within Sunni orthodoxy. With Islam as the state religion, the outlook for human rights was very dark. In cultural institutions, persons suspected of secularism began to be purged; so did the judiciary, over which Morsi proposed to exercise absolute power at the end of 2012. From the point of view of the Muslim Brotherhood, the consolidation of a monopoly of power, based on their electoral hegemony, was only logical.

But the price was political isolation. The map of power in Egypt was triangular. At one corner was the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists; at another, the secularists and the defenders of the legacy of Tahrir; at the third, the army, nostalgic for the Mubarak era. An effective pluralism, as was at first proclaimed, would have enabled Morsi to coopt the moderate Muslims and the secularists. But his authoritarian drift led to a democratic movement against him.

The later formation of a radical opposition bloc, Tammarud, though preaching peaceful means, left no way of stepping back. From being confident holders of power, the Muslim Brotherhood now became more like a besieged fortress. Morsi’s popularity fell to 25 percent. His insistence on imposing his project, and his disregard of the power balance, led to disaster. Perhaps Morsi did not count on the army returning to its role of armed arbiter.

In view of the coup d’état, we must keep our eye on a general principle: military coups are not a way of building a system of liberties, or of resolving a crisis as complicated as the Egyptian one. We must also remember that the army was not alone. Its support included the Coptic Christians, the imam of the Al-Azhar university, and even the Salafists.

Morsi and his government are not without blame; but the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood is a precondition for democracy in Egypt. The military tutelage designed by general Sisi can only be a recipe for a climate of rising confrontation.