The Egyptian Example

The Muslim Brotherhood waited 84 years to gain access to the levers of power in Egypt. In 2012, following President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, they won the largest share of seats in parliament; Brother Muhammad Mursi won the highest office in Egypt’s first democratic presidential election; and both constituent assemblies–tasked with writing a new constitution–were stacked with Brothers or those sympathetic to them. The Brotherhood now has a chance to govern with the whole world watching.

Its success or failure will decide Egypt’s future. But it will also affect the Brotherhood as an international brand. Across the region, the Brotherhood has spawned offshoots and parties which can be found in Jordan, Syria, North Africa, etc. These organizations are not closely tied. They enjoy varying degrees of support and matured under specific conditions in very different countries. Their political programs, however, are not so easy to distinguish. As a result, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood—the original Brotherhood—has a chance to energize franchises or doom them by example in a region where democracy is lurching forward or bubbling up from below.

In Egypt, the Brotherhood’s sudden rise was stunning. It was also predictable. The Brotherhood maintained strong community ties in a religious society that for so long relied on them when the government failed to provide services. These connections allowed them to “hit the ground running” when real politicking began. Liberals, secularists, and youth organizations lit the spark that exploded the Mubarak regime; their outrage and deft use of social media animated protests and, without them, he might still be in power. But the Brotherhood’s age and structure equipped it for the long game of campaigning, getting out the vote, and ultimately winning elections. Many of its affiliates possess the same advantages in other countries.

Unlike most of its neighbors, Egypt has reached the nasty “negotiation” phase of the democratic process, whereby different interest groups wrestle with the existential questions of government. How much power is too much? Which offices should wield it? How can oversight be institutionalized? And how can minorities be protected in a system that–by design–draws legitimacy from the majority? This process will last years. So far it has been a bruising experience for everyone involved—but it’s been especially taxing on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has made several missteps.

First, they promised to run for only 30 percent of parliamentary seats. They took almost 50 percent. Next they said they would not field a candidate for president. Mursi won. The first constitutional (or constituent) assembly was terminated by the courts because it was chosen by a house of parliament that was dissolved on a technicality. It was also dominated by Islamists aligned with the Brotherhood. The second assembly completed its draft constitution on November 29. Just four female members participated and zero Christians were involved after several withdrew from the process. A rushed draft will be put to referendum on December 15, having been written almost exclusively by conservatives. Many in Egypt will tell you the Brotherhood cannot be trusted. (And some Gulf Arabs will say, “I told you so!”)

The Brotherhood’s record deserves a second—and dare I say sympathetic—look. The party backtracked on promises like any political party would if given the chance to gain more influence, especially after decades of oppression. The second constitutional assembly and its faulty draft should raise alarms. But the rush to referendum was a direct result of the threat of another judicial intervention that could have canceled the assembly’s work again.

President Mursi’s November 22 decree is much harder to justify. It granted the president immense power and made him immune to judicial oversight. In a system that currently has no parliament, Mursi enjoys both executive and legislative authority. The decree went a step further by nullifying the courts. Egyptians hit the streets by the tens of thousands to protest and Mursi backtracked rhetorically; he promised that his decree was temporary and that he would give back powers once a constitution was finalized. That wasn’t enough to satisfy two hundred thousand protesters in Cairo who called Mursi a “pharaoh” this week. Protests continue outside the presidential palace and a clear resolution seems far off.

For years, Mubarak and leaders like him swore that the Brotherhood was a radical movement, ready to impose its will on moderate Arabs and harm American interests. By this self-serving logic, only autocrats could hold them back. If Mursi and his party fail—by abusing power, overseeing a total breakdown in the Egyptian economy, or establishing a top-heavy system that is oppressively conservative—Islamists elsewhere could lose out too when it comes time to run for office. Thus, Egypt’s first democratic experiment could serve as a cautionary tale for Muslim democrats, unless they already hold power (like in Tunisia or Gaza).

This outcome would not legitimize Mubarak’s argument. There is no good excuse for tyranny. But it could empower liberals and opponents of the Brotherhood inside and outside of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s success would have the opposite effect.

December 5 update: I feel obligated to post a link to an old article by Nathan J. Brown of George Washington University and the Carnegie Endowment. Back in May, he made some of the same exact points made here in an article titled, “A Muslim Brotherhood win would resonate far beyond Egypt.” Brown writes some of the very best commentary on Egypt and the ongoing democratic transition. If I’d seen this earlier, I would have simply linked to it!

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