The crisis confronting Egypt shouldn’t have been unexpected. As thousands of opponents and supporters of the country’s Islamist President continue to stage rival rallies ahead of a nationwide referendum on a draft constitution, the prognosis is at best uncertain, even with the strong Egyptian sense of national identity and a military seemingly committed to the concept of robust service to the nation rather than loyalty to a political movement.
Autocracy is too often bred in the bone. We miss all this if we decline to consider political and historical context.
The euphoria surrounding the demise of Hosni Mubarak’s regime a year ago led to unrealistic expectations on the part of liberal progressives. While expecting a bumpy road, they seemed convinced that political transformation would ensure that a pluralistic polity was the inevitable consequence of regime change. That Cairo society in particular boasts secular reformists and intelligentsia led them and their supporters abroad to conclude that their efforts could sweep authoritarianism into the dustbin.
Reformers were slow in realizing that, although their role in the uprising was essential, they were to be the facilitators of Mr. Mubarak’s demise, not the inheritors of his power. They intended to transform their country into the kind of open democracy approximating that in the West, whereby the excluded would become full participants in civil society. This was a worthy goal but moot against long-held political and social traditions, where the art of political compromise remains rudimentary, if not alien, to the majority.
Egypt has known little of governance accommodation since the military coup of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952. Instead of the state serving the people, the people increasingly served the state – and the state was unaccountable. That this mindset would confront pluralism today is not surprising. It reflects ingrained sociological reality where, whatever the intention of governance groups, the reality risks replacing one autocracy with another, such is the only known political model. Subversion against those who believe they have the right to rule becomes a leitmotif, warranted or not.
This is the case of the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied ultra-conservative Salafists, whatever their differences in approach. Their success illustrates the failure of secular nationalist autocracies to fill the void in Egyptian lives. To the majority, these Islamists offer a path to certainty, predictability and equity driven by ideological conviction. Ideology and religion can make a potent brew, for what believer can abjure the divinity as revealed in sacred texts? Thus the legacy of modern autocracy combines well with the certainty of ideological conviction.
This doesn’t mean that President Mohamed Morsi has consciously divorced himself from a more open environment than his predecessor tolerated. It does mean, however, that he’s committed to a more religiously observant society, where belief dominates society and where government has a moral responsibility to see that it does. Hence, when challenged by the courts, fear of the other led Mr. Morsi to unilaterally assume near-dictatorial power, although he backed off under street (and quite possibly military) pressure.
It’s ironic, but welcome, that the military that fomented the 1952 coup against the monarchy may have become the guarantor of fair play. This may be the fly in Mr. Morsi’s ointment. He can’t dictate to the military; instead, he must establish a modus vivendi with it. In this crisis (and into the foreseeable future), it’s the senior officer corps that will determine the limits of the possible as long as it remains united.
The military determines how any political impasse might be broken. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief and defence minister, has reportedly invited “all segments” of society to meet Wednesday to discuss a way out of the crisis.
But the President and the Muslim Brotherhood aren’t powerless. They can mobilize the street; they can instigate unrest. For decades, they were the only effective and organized opposition. They have established deep societal roots through relief services, medical services and educational facilities for the dispossessed, for those in the political philosopher Frantz Fanon’s phrase who saw themselves as “the wretched of the Earth.” When I first arrived in Egypt in 1994, I was deeply impressed by the ability of the Brotherhood to get aid and relief to disaster victims before the government itself could mobilize.
The jury is still out on the struggle for power, but the armed forces and the Brotherhood are the only institutionally based entities of determining significance. They, together, will have to write the rules of the game, whatever a new constitution might prescribe. That process will be anything but easy and a pluralist civil society anything but certain. The odds, unhappily, are against it.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.
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