Groundhog Day in Cairo

It feels like Groundhog Day in Cairo. Again, as in early 2011, masses of people demonstrated against the president; again, the military stepped in and seized power; and once again, a transitional roadmap was published, laying out how Egypt should return to civilian politics under a reformed constitution legitimized by a series of electoral events within a year.

It did not go well the first time however, and is unlikely to do so now. The imposition of a cookie-cutter transition with a rapid succession of elections will do nothing to build consensus on the ground rules of politics, which is the only way to achieve deep democratization and the stabilization of the country.

The military and the interim government may have been well intentioned when they issued the roadmap. Indeed many Egyptians and international actors demanded clarification about the way ahead with reassurances that the soldiers have no intention to govern in the long run. Yet the roadmap was immediately met with a chorus of criticism, even from potentially sympathetic circles of the Tamarod protest movement and the liberal National Salvation Front. What went wrong? The army has not learned one of the lessons of 2011; say, the need to consult widely before making decisions, even if “only” about the process.

There are deeper problems with the roadmap, however, for those who believe that Egypt can only be stabilized and democratized if the Muslim Brotherhood are brought back into the political fold. It should be no surprise that they are currently in no mood to negotiate with the new government. In their view they are the victims of stolen elections: they won the lower house of Parliament, but the court dissolved it; Morsi won the presidency, but the military deposed him; and the upper house of Parliament, dominated by the Brotherhood as well, was terminated by the interim president. While this is not the whole story and the Brotherhood must ask itself hard questions about its record, their humiliation in the face of the coup is real.

Inviting the Brotherhood in this context to take part in a quick transition feels like inviting a train driver, who has just been thrown overboard, to board the train once more as it is about to leave. It cannot work. What is required instead are good faith signals to the Brotherhood to open the space for re-engagement. There will be some in the Brotherhood who may never be convinced again of political participation, but there will be others in its leadership and electorate who would be responsive. 

A quick transition would close the space for re-engagement with the Brotherhood. Elections, boycotted by the Brotherhood, would be seen as a legitimization of the new situation rather than a genuine competitive contest. There is a question also if Egyptian voters have a real appetite for electoral events numbers six to nine since Mubarak’s ouster in a context of an economic and social emergency.

What then could be done instead? The beginning of a formal transition could be postponed by at least six months to provide a cool-off period for the interim government to address the social-economic crisis. The time should be used by the civilian parties and mediators to begin a dialogue without pre-conditions with the Brotherhood, behind the scenes or in some official forum. Talks should generate ideas for the next steps, none of which should be pre-determined in the short-term. This is no guarantee that the Brotherhood would re-engage, but it would make fundamental opposition more difficult.   

It seems imprudent to focus on the Constitution now, as proposed in the roadmap. For a constitution to bring stability, it should be the expression of ground rules that hedge the political struggle in a legal framework agreed upon by all major parties. The Brotherhood damaged its reputation by bulldozing the current constitution through the Constituent Assembly last November without real negotiation or public consultations. The new government should not repeat the same mistake.

Until now the two sides in Egypt’s conflict have conducted politics as though it were a football match: 1:0 because I won elections, 1:1 because I dissolved the Parliament, 2:1 because I imposed a Constitution, 2:2 because I deposed your president, and so forth. It has been a game without rules, limits, or a referee. This game cannot be repeated forever. Something new has to happen. It is time to negotiate the ground rules and this is not something the electorate can do through elections.

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Michael Meyer-Resende