In Selected Opinion

I share that sense of confusion and uncertainty — but I also feel as deep concern and foreboding as I have at any moment since demonstrators first turned out in Egypt’s public squares on January 25, 2011. The days leading up to the June 30 set of countrywide demonstrations against President Mohamed Morsi as well as the few that follow will be critical ones for the future of the political order, but I doubt if even the major actors themselves know what they will do. While I cannot provide clarity any better than any participant, I can outline why the current confrontation between the presidency and much of the Islamist camp on the one side and the opposition on the other (with the military lurking not so quietly in the wings) is so portentous for Egypt’s political future. 

Egyptian politics now seems to operate in two parallel universes. On the one side is a simple story of a president and ruling political party that suffered years of oppression but were finally rewarded by the Egyptian people for their endurance, dedication, and honesty. Endowed with clear democratic and constitutional legitimacy — and brought to power on the heels of a popular uprising that his movement helped lead — President Morsi suddenly faces an array of forces who wish to rewrite the rules of the political game in a blatant attempt to overthrow the express will of the people. Stopping at nothing (the opposition uses false charges, accepts foreign assistance, uses shrill and incendiary rhetoric, refuses dialogue, and does not even stop at violating common decency by demonstrating in underwear), a collection of rude youth, power-hungry secular politicians, old regime elements, and scheming security services have conspired to declare, in effect, that Egyptians must be called to the ballot box only on condition that they reject Islamists (and if they make a mistake, they must be summoned back again).

On the other side is an equally simple story of a president who narrowly won office promising competence, inclusiveness, and conciliation but who delivered instead inflation, unemployment, power outages, fuel shortages, autocracy, sectarianism, and divisive rhetoric. Offering meaningless dialogues without the hint of concessions, his erstwhile allies have all abandoned him. And as the ranks of his critics have grown to the extent that they clearly have come to speak for the vast majority of Egyptians, the society has quite simply withdrawn confidence in him as president. Rather than following the text of a constitution that the president’s party rammed through for its own purposes — a constitution that would force the country through three more years of deterioration and despair — Morsi should leave office now and allow the people to pick new leadership.

The existence of these two parallel universes is not new; in some ways the current situation differs more in degree than in kind from the recent past.

For instance, polarization first set in within a month of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster and has generally grown worse since then. Rhetoric now is at its most extreme, to be sure. One mild-mannered Egyptian explained to me that Morsi had made clear that he was not even Egyptian and that he was quite literally a traitor; another figure from the other camp (an imam of a Cairo mosque whom I have known for a while) who had criticized the Muslim Brotherhood in the past explained that under the current circumstances, there was no choice but to back him because the battle had become one between secularism and religion. The same imam warned me with anguish visible on his face that because I wear a short beard, I could be attacked in the streets as a likely Brotherhood supporter (mercifully, nobody made such a mistake). Similarly, the tendency of various camps to live within their own bubbles, filtering out inconvenient facts and inventing convenient ones, is also hardly new, but it has grown markedly worse.

But there are three recent developments that are qualitatively new. First, the opposition critique seems finally to have resonated beyond the chattering classes and the rebellious youth. The slow deterioration of public services, spot shortages, and general sense of aimlessness will likely swell the crowds on June 30 and after. In a week in Cairo, I met almost no fence sitters. Morsi has his supporters to be sure, but virtually all others said they planned to demonstrate.

Second, violence is on the table. The parallel universes may soon become perpendicular. Of course, Egyptian politics has had its victims over the past two and a half years, but violence has seemed episodic and almost self-limiting since those who have deployed it have paid a heavy political price. Nobody advocates violence now, but many expect it and it is not uncommon to hear from both sides that they will not shrink from self-defense. And the line between self-defense and offensive action can become thin for each camp for opposite reasons. The opposition is hardly centrally controlled and rogue elements have already been involved in attacks on Brotherhood offices as well as those of its political party. For the Brotherhood, its discipline has led it to prepare for what it sees as defensive action in a manner that understandably appears threatening to outsiders (especially after the events of December 2012 when Brotherhood cadres constituted themselves as a vigilante force to confront those demonstrating at the presidential palace).

And the threat of mass protest and outbreaks of violence have led to the third development: the return of military intervention as an explicit option. The message from the military leadership in recent months has been clear in its general thrust but generally short on specifics: the military does not wish to take a political role, but it does regard itself as responsible for security of Egypt. That vagueness has likely sprouted from a desire to communicate to the presidency that it needed to improve its governance performance without offering the opposition the incentive to be so disruptive as to provoke an intervention. But a June 23 warning that civilian political forces had one week to reconcile seemed to abandon a degree of this studied ambiguity. But much still remains unclear. What would provoke an intervention? And what would the military do? Military intervention can take many forms — suppressing demonstrations or violence, imposition of a government of national unity, deposing the president, suspending the constitution, asserting temporary authority — and since it is not clear that any of these options would solve or even alleviate Egypt’s political crisis, it can hardly be taken for granted that the military would intervene.

And indeed, it does not seem likely at all at this point that any consensus or compromise is possible. Part of the problem is that neither side has presented its position in terms amenable to compromise. The presidency offers continuing with a constitutionally-mandated political process that the opposition rejects. And the opposition has finally coalesced around a simple demand — that Morsi must leave office.

Yet these maximal positions are not the core of the problem. An agreement may actually have been possible but the political will was simply missing. There were a series of quiet efforts undertaken in the past few months to bring the government and opposition together. These efforts (some domestic, some international) all centered around a set of proposals to form a new cabinet with credible national figures, consider constitutional amendments, and move toward an agreed electoral framework. Those involved in these efforts reported considerable progress the major (and perhaps only) missing ingredient was a willingness to sign on the dotted line. While the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) sent mixed signals, ultimately its judgment seemed to be that agreement offered few benefits and too high a cost. They had too many forces to contend with, and ultimately those within the state apparatus (military, security forces, judiciary, bureaucracy) absorbed all their energy. For divided opposition leaders unwilling to be seen as negotiating, mistrust of their sporadic interlocutors ran just as deep.

And now attitudes have grown hard indeed. I asked one leading FJP parliamentarian — a figure I have come to respect as level headed, calm, introspective, and patient — whether he thought he wished his side had done anything differently (referring specifically to the crisis over Morsi’s November 2012 constitutional declaration and the subsequent clashes). He replied with visible anger that not only did he think they would do it all over again but that in fact they will do it all over again if necessary. And when I remarked to a friend in a responsible position that I did not think Morsi would leave office voluntarily, he replied that he thought the Egyptian people would deal with him as Libyans had dealt with Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Calmer language was used in Europe in the summer of 1914.

But while cooler heads on both sides have grown hot, there is a marked difference in attitude between the two camps. Among the governing party, there is an air of grim determination and a deep sense of grievance. Their electoral victories have given them an opportunity they do not want to be denied by unscrupulous rivals — or, perhaps, a burden that malevolent forces cannot prevent them from shouldering on the people’s behalf.

Among the opposition, there is a strange euphoria — as if they are already living in the glowing aftermath of having brought down a second tyrant. Some talk as if Morsi’s loss of legitimacy is so clear that all that remains is the formality of removing him from office.

And here we come to a deeply troubling aspect of Egyptian politics that has largely passed unnoticed: how personalized it has become and how much this personalization involved not simply harsh criticisms but de-legitimation of opposing points of views. All actors — the presidency, the opposition, the military (and al-Azhar and the judiciary as well for that matter) claim that they represent or act on behalf of the entire people; no structure or political force seems well equipped to handle fundamental differences in world views or material interests.

I have previously argued that the problems of post-revolutionary politics in Egypt have stemmed from the way the transition was designed and fundamental errors made in the process rather than bad intentions on the part of the actors. Those flaws should have been clear from the beginning since they served nobody’s agenda. In short, it was more mistake, accident, and miscalculation rather than bad faith (though that existed on all sides) that led Egypt to this point. At the present time, Morsi’s flaws as a leader are on painful display. But it is not clear to me that a more able or conciliatory figure would have been able to address Egypt’s pressing problems. 

But such a depersonalized assessment finds little purchase in Egyptian political debates. For the opposition, the problem is Morsi himself just as it was Mubarak earlier. For Morsi’s supporters the problem is malevolent saboteurs, sometimes supported by meddlesome foreign actors. (While there has been foreign meddling to be sure, my impression is that most international actors want a stable outcome in Egypt; despite the sometimes xenophobic tone of Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum, the international environment is far more friendly than it is threatening.)

As a result, whatever the outcome of the confrontation on June 30, Egypt’s deep structural problems will remain. But the society will be addressing them with weakened and tarnished institutions, a political process incapable of producing clear policies, embittered losers and mistrustful winners, and no accepted procedures for resolving political differences. These problems may slowly resolve themselves over time, but Egyptian politics shows few signs of patience.

A year ago, I described Egypt’s transition as a train wreck in slow motion without the slow motion. I have the same sense now — except the main victim then was the political process. The main victim now may be a society of 90 million people.


Nathan J. Brown is professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University, nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and author of When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics (Cornell University Press, 2012). Foreign Policy

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