Hundreds of thousands of protesters were in the streets of Cairo on the weekend to show support for a new “National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy” – 11 Islamist parties, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. This alliance has encouraged supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi to “defend legitimacy” and “constitutional legitimacy” through public protest. This same language is being invoked by anti-Morsi protesters claiming to “defend the people’s legitimacy.”
This intense competition over the meaning of legitimacy appears to be a turning point in Egyptian politics. Legitimacy is not only symbolically important, it has real consequences: billions of dollars in aid at stake from the International Monetary Fund, the United States and other international donors.
Beyond these symbolic and material consequences, this competition changes the battlefield in the long struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military – a struggle that erupted in gunfire early Monday when more than 50 members of the Brotherhood were killed and 400 more were wounded in a violent exchange with the military.
The Brotherhood and the military have been locked in a bitter political struggle since 1954. It began with the incarceration of Muslim Brothers under the postrevolutionary regimes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, and continued with their political exclusion and arbitrary arrests through Hosni Mubarak’s era. The struggle between General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and Mr. Morsi is merely the latest round.
Building on the public protests, Gen. al-Sisi has claimed that Egypt’s military is the protector of the people’s will and ambitions. As one tweeter joked last week: “Protester found a lamp in Tahrir [Square], rubbed it, genie came out & granted him a wish. ‘I want Morsi to resign.’ ‘I have to run this by the army.’ ”
For nearly nine decades, the Muslim Brotherhood worked at the political margins, largely underground, while it built its organization and provided social services. And now, after this brief, failed interlude in political power, it faces familiar challenges. Hundreds of its members, including top Islamists such as Saad el-Katatni, the popular leader of the Freedom and Justice Party, have been arrested and detained. And in an ironic reversal of fortunes, it was reported on the weekend that Egypt’s prosecutor-general ordered several influential Brothers, including Mr. el-Katatni and Mr. Morsi, to be interrogated about possible crimes – inciting violence, killings, destruction to Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party headquarters – all allegedly committed during the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square.
Yet there is a new layer at stake in this struggle. The Muslim Brotherhood has gained crucial symbolic capital; ousted from political power and facing likely arrest and detention, it’s already speaking of itself as the guardian of democracy and legal legitimacy. This, of course, cynically ignores its systematic attempt while in power to undermine the judicial independence of the very judges who will adjudicate these cases.
But no matter: What the Brotherhood has gained is the capacity to speak the language of law and legitimacy as one of its claims to authority, a language that is deeply seductive among a population hungry not only for jobs, but also for law, democracy and change. The Muslim Brotherhood may well win by losing.
Ron Levi is director of the Master of Global Affairs program at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Janice Gross Stein is director of the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto.