Mursi and the Brotherhood in a Pluralist Egypt

Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Mursi has been officially declared the president of Egypt. But under the terms of the military constitutional guidelines issued last Sunday night, he comes into office in the framework of a military government headed by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

That is, all the doomsaying about Egypt turning into Iran is to say the least premature, since Mursi at the moment is more Tantawi’s vice president than anything else.

Moreover, despite the Orientalist impulse in Western writing to see everything in the Middle East as black and white, as fundamentalist or libertine, Egypt’s political geography has been revealed by this year’s elections to be diverse. It isn’t just puritans versus belly dancers.

Here are the major factions according to the outcome of the first round of presidential elections, in which there were numerous candidates with strong ideological commitments. I was in Egypt for that election and did a lot of interviewing with Egyptians of all stripes, coming away impressed at how all over the place the electorate was. (Obviously I’m using the candidates below as a sort of political shorthand, and there is more overlap than the categories suggest, but this is ballpark):

1. The Labor Left, led by Hamdeen Sabahi (20.17%)
2. Classic liberals, led by Amr Moussa (11.13%)
3. Authoritarian secularists,led by Ahmad Shafiq (23.66%)
4. Muslim liberals, led by Abdul Moneim Abou’l-Futouh (17.47%)
5. Muslim fundamentalist, led by Muhammad Mursi (24.78%)

Egyptian Politicas

Mursi won by retaining the fundamentalists and picking up the Muslim liberals and at least some of the Labor Left, and even a few classic liberals such as novelist Alaa al-Aswani. His victory is not solely a victory for the hard line fundamentalists, who probably only accounted for about half of his voters. He owes the Labor Left and those classic liberals who preferred him to the authoritarian Shafiq.

Mursi will now appoint a prime minister and a cabinet (the Egyptian system is a bit like that of France), and he may well reward his non-fundamentalist allies with key cabinet posts. (That pluralism is exactly what did not happen in Iran after the fall of the Mehdi Bazargan government with the Hostage Crisis of 1979).

Moreover, if in fact Egypt now moves to a new constitution and new parliamentary elections by the end of this year, the more diverse political landscape revealed by the first round of the presidential elections may get reflected in parliament in a way that did not happen in the first election after the revolution. I argue that the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi hardline fundamentalists did so well last year because the electorate was still afraid of the Mubaraks returning, and they wanted to put the opposition strongly in power. Now, they’ve soured to some extent on the Brotherhood, and want some law and order and economic initiatives, and may well vote in a significantly different way.

Hamdeen Sabahi is forming a labor left party, and labor flexed its muscles in the first presidential round, given him the major port city and Mediterranean province of Alexandria. Alexandria went to Mursi in this second round, but he can’t count on it in the new parliament.

The strong showing of the liberals and the authoritarian leftovers of the old regime, in provinces of the Delta and key districts of Cairo also suggests that some reformulated National Democratic Party (the old party of Hosni Mubarak) may do well in any new parliamentary elections. Could Ahmad Shafiq end up leader of a powerful bloc in the new parliament?

So not only is Mursi hemmed in by the military, he may well end up having to compromise with a more pluralist political landscape by the end of this year. Whereas he could have gotten legislation through the December, 2011 parliament easily, he may have a more uphill battle in any new parliament.

Admittedly, Mursi is now in the position, as an elected president with a clear popular mandate of about 52 percent of the vote, to maneuver against Tantawi’s constraints. But it remains to be seen whether he can succeed. Mursi on Friday gave a speech in which he rejected the Supreme Court’s dissolution of parliament, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood line is that the court had the right to find that a third of the seats, set aside for independents, had been improperly filled by party-backed candidates. But, they say, the executive decision of what exactly to do about that should have been left to the president (e.g. instead of dissolving the whole body of parliament you could have held a do-over for that one-third of seats). Mursi also rejected the military constitutional amendments designed to constrain the president until a new constitution is written.

Among the prerogatives the military claimed was to appoint a new constituent assembly to draft the constitution. But a court-ordered process had already established a constituent assembly, which met over the weekend and insisted they are still in business. Mursi may well back them, setting the stage for one of the first and most important struggles between himself and Tantawi.

Can Mursi force the military to back down on any of these three urgent institutional issues? He certainly can put millions of protesters in the streets if it came to that. But the Brotherhood has a long game, and may well adopt a more piecemeal and less confrontational approach.

One problem for Mursi is in mollifying the half of Egyptians who are absolutely terrified of him, fearing that he wants to turn their fun-loving, moderate country into a puritan, grim, Saudi Arabia. More activist women, Coptic Christians, and the secular-minded middle and upper classes are among these groups. Moreover, the hardline puritan stances he has taken would kill the Egyptian tourism industry (nobody is going on vacation to Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada to wear their street clothes into the water and be deprived of so much as a beer). There are a lot of powerful economic interests in Egypt that depend on tourism, and on foreign investment. Mursi has to prove he can avoid scaring the horses, or he and his party will crash and burn even without military opposition.

18 Responses

  1. Hooray for Egypt! Democratic Egypt!
    History moves in fits and starts. Progress is rare. This is progress. No matter what the failures and shortcomings are of any form of government or society, we must remember, that while we should all dream of a better world, it is not wise to condemn what we have accomplished based on comparison to some mythical ideal. To fairly judge the present we must compare it to the past and that will be our best guide to a better future. Today, Egypt is a better place.

    God bless the people of Egypt, may you live and prosper in peace, through love and respect for one another, in your beautiful new DEMOCRACY!

  2. Now is the time for Mursi to create a coalition cabinet and include many appointments from other factions into the upcoming government. Adding Sabahi and some other important leaders to positions of significance and power, as well as reaching a compromise on the constitution, are keys to achieving this. The temptation to placate SCAF and its efforts to revive authoritarian laws and procedures must be resisted.

    Many of the liberals and labor activists have excellent ideas so it is in Mursi’s interest to form a unity government with them. Addressing the problem of military intereference in politics will require the strength of all revolutionaries in order to actually succeed.

  3. The military’s demonstrations of its continuing political/economic power reveal the dangers of focusing on factional rather than national interests and objectives. Individually, political entities can have their power easily swept away, but by cooperating together, the revolutionary movement as a whole might make substantive progress toward estabishing a constitutional democratic republic (the primary purpose of the revolution). Party politics achieve nothing if they create divisions that enable all progress to be annulled by military elites and unreconstructed courts still operating along questionable lines.

  4. I have stated this before and I will repeat it: For many Islamists, there is no possiblity of having a “socially just society” without having a religiously “righteous society”. Having secularists making policy simply won’t work, according to this, because they are no carrying out the Divine will. Don’t forget that the Nour-Salafists got something like 25% of the vote in the earlier Parliamentary elections. They will be breathing down Mursi’s and the MB’s necks if he attempts to make coalitions with liberal secularists. The country faces a very difficult economic sitatuion and once Mursi’s governement starts to stumble, the more hardline Islamists will be able to say “we told you so, the MB didn’t go far enough to bring real change”.
    This is just the beginning. Egypt is marking a real change and it is hard to know which way it is going.

  5. Mursi made a backroom deal with the military. This is clear because the announcement of the winner was significantly delayed. The Brotherhood may feel they understand the way the game is played after the dissolution of parliament, but Mursi will likely be a figurehead president. All the military’s done is delay again what I hope is the eventual overthrow of the generals. The Egyptian people’s capacity to be fooled is fathomless.

  6. President Mursi in his speech had nothing to say about the threat against democracy coming from the military and actually went on to praise the police. I think we may be looking at a very collaborationist president.

  7. Mursi said: The Shittes are more dangerous to Islam than the jews.

    مرسی: شیعیان از یهودیان برای اسلام خطرناک تر هستند!

    link to entekhab.ir

  8. Thanx for the excellent breakdown of modern Egypt’s political composition. Their Pluralism may save them from radicals like Shafiq and Tantawi. The possibility for democracy and peace looks promising.

    Thanx agn for sharing. I wish I could say that America’s future is as promising. Our polarization scares me. I fought in WWII. I voted for FDR. And as I approach my 89th birthday I can’t help worrying about the America my 4 grandsons will inherit.

    I almost envy Egypt.
    I trade e-mails with your Dad every day. Good hearing from you.

  9. What is the MB’s economic plan? The whole thing looks doomed, although I wish the Egyptian people well.

    • Khairat al-Shatir is a businessman, and says at least that he wants to promote business and trade.

  10. A couple of small observations/questions:

    + Please site some examples of Morsi’s hard line approach on tourism. Everything I have read or listened to has been very supportive. See link to ikhwanweb.com and similar.

    + You start your article stating that Orientalist see everything in black and white and then you conclude by saying that 50% of Egyptians are terrified of Morsi. Where is your evidence of this terror? It’s a huge statement and does not match my personal experience.

    + It might be worth mentioning the decline in Islamist votse in either of the presidential elections versus the parliamentary election.

  11. A couple of small observations/questions:

    + Please site some examples of Morsi’s hard line approach on tourism. Everything I have read or listened to has been very supportive. See link to ikhwanweb.com and similar.

    + You start your article stating that Orientalists see everything in black and white and then you conclude by saying that 50% of Egyptians are terrified of Morsi. Where is your evidence of this terror? It’s a huge statement and does not match my personal experience.

    + It might be worth mentioning the decline in Islamist votes in either of the presidential elections versus the parliamentary election.

    • Being supportive of tourism in principle isn’t useful if you ban liquor and bathing suits. Sharia measures will kill it despite all his nice words.

      If you don’t know that large numbers of Egyptians are terrified of Mursi’s victory, you have a narrow social circle.

      I did point to the decline in support for the fundamentalists.

      • Morsi and the MB have said that the tourism sector would “keep its freedoms” and “No citizen who makes a living from this branch need to be worried. Our goal is to attract annually 20 million tourists to Egypt” – meaning tourists would be allowed to drink alcohol and sunbathe on Egypt’s beaches. Please site an example of “the hardline puritan stances he has taken” on tourism?.

        Where are the facts to back up this assertion: “half of Egyptians who are absolutely terrified of him” or is the evidence purely anecdotal? Is it not an Orientalist impulse to see everything in black and white? (My extensive social circle suggest that large numbers of Egyptians do not support Morsi and are not terrified – some are ready to fight anything that does go wrong).

      • Juan, Hassan was asking you to back up a claim you made. Even though I may agree with you, your reply to him shocked me.

        You spend a lot of time dismantling the belief systems of bigoted, prejudiced and intolerant individuals, yet you sounded just as hostile and rigid in your beliefs.

  12. [...] As I mentioned in my last post, the two choices in the run-off Egyptian presidential election (Ahmed Shafiq v. Mohamed Morsi), did not represent the two poles of Egyptian political though, but rather, a narrow slice of the intricate and nuanced spectrum that we see in the current Egyptian political conversation. Juan Cole took this idea a step further and made a “political shorthand” “ballpark” estimate of the citizenry’s five major ideological groupings from the current political climate, which I very much appreciate (from Cole’s article, Mursi and the Brotherhood in a Pluralist Egypt): [...]

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