Thoughts on Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum
This post is in large measure a summary of yesterday’s discussion hosted by Tamara Cofman Wittes, Director at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, with Khaled Elgindy, a fellow at the Saban Center, and Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at Brookings Doha. I am indebted to the Brookings Institution for much of what follows but my own opinions are injected along the way.
What sort of government is created with this constitution? The House of Representatives and a Senate called the Shura Council constitute a bicameral parliament to act as a check on the powers of the president. The president appoints the prime minister as a proxy. Therefore the president has overweening power, as it was in the evil days of Mubarak.
There is a judiciary but it has little power to challenge the president and is deeply conservative. With the advent of shari’a law as the basis for the constitution, Al Azhar University becomes the ulama, with the unprecedented and vaguely defined power to review legislation, as described in Article 4 of the new constitution.
This constitution is stillborn. For all its windy trash about political and partisan plurality, the rule of law, respect to human rights, guarantee of rights and freedoms, peaceful rotation of power, etc. –the Egyptian constitution hasn’t even defined the electoral process. It exempts the military from any oversight. It has created a religious state for all intents and purposes.
This constitution won’t last more than a few years. The current referendum isn’t about constitution: it is a plebiscite on Mohamed Mursi. America might not have a large role to play in all this but mostly we ought to hold true to democratic ideals and not doing our usual Deals with Devils We Know.
I previously said it’s Amateur Hour in Egypt. Everyone in this situation has made a dog’s dinner of what little mandate they ever had. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) forgot how Mursi got elected; they needed the non-Islamists to win. When they were campaigning, they were all for limits on presidential power and a strong parliament. Now it’s the opposite: Mursi needs huge powers they say. Egyptian politics is game without rules, ending up in a game where the winners make all the rules, leading to more polarisation and more instability.
MB are majoritarian: 50 + 1%. They’ve been waiting 80+ years to come to power. Their martyrs fill Egypt’s graveyards. Their intransigence is understandable but ultimately counterproductive. MB know their only hope for viability as a majority lies in making friends and create a viable opposition to give them legitimacy. But as Pynchon once observed, “paranoids are not paranoids because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves, fucking idiots, deliberately into paranoid situations.” MB has reneged on promises of inclusion, Mursi has acted like a dictator, annoyed all the other parties, annoyed the judiciary. The military hasn’t said much but they don’t trust him either since they’re constantly being called in to deal with domestic strife and riots and mop up the blood. Nobody trusts Mursi. His paranoia is entirely justified. MB were created in opposition: that’s all they ever knew. MB don’t know how to rule but nobody else does, either.
To simplify things to the point of error, Egypt’s politics sorts out into five main lumps.
1. There’s MB, the old bulls with 37.5 % of the parliamentary vote.
2. There are the Salafis, a significant ultra-orthodox constituency who received 27.8 percent.
3. Despite their rhetoric, the New Wafd Party with 9.2 % of the vote are not Liberal, whatever else they might be. Wafd are a bunch of nationalist Holocaust deniers.
4. Coming up last, the Egyptian Bloc with 8.9 % of the vote, a motley and deeply divided collection of socialists, leftists and civil democracy types. They’ve largely fallen apart.
5. Unelected and unsupervised, SCAF, Egypt’s military looks impassively over a landscape filled with these fractious civilian bozos, biding its time, hoping things work out, ready to step in when they fail.
Egypt’s elections are in several stages. What’s important to understand in all this electioneering, these elections are by decree. The new constitution doesn’t address elections at all. These are the first free elections since 1952: there’s not much point complaining about them at this point. By our standards, they’re not so good: there’s no finance disclosure or electoral transparency. Vast patronage structures, bought loyalists, troublesome sectarian discourse. Deck-stacking is a big problem and irregularities both real and perceived are everywhere. Still, considering Mubarak used to routinely stuff the ballot boxes, it is an improvement.
Democratic elections in Egypt are not a panacea. Egypt is sorting itself out into two camps: Islamists and Everyone Else. The MB, as I have said, are majoritarian: they are intent upon forcing their edicts down everyone’s throat by the mandate of simple majority. To that end, they have been pushed into bed with the Salafists. The Salafists are not their friends any more than the Tea Party are the friends of the GOP in the USA. The Salafists have been observed trying to form alliances with the Liberals in an effort to outflank MB.
Generally speaking, Islamists have the upper hand but only in the countryside. They do well on a district to district basis. Excellent grass roots but smaller constituencies. The Liberals are learning quickly: they’re building constituencies in the cities. MB may lose some seats and the Liberals pick up a few more but the Liberals have a host of problems, starting with the fact that “Liberal” is a bad word in some quarters. Liberals are seen as elitists. A famously horrible Tweet from Alaa al-Aswani
We might agree to a referendum on two conditions: MB must, one, disenfranchise illiterate voters and two, imprison those who bought votes with oil and sugar. Do you accept or not? -trans BlaiseP
Wow. That’s sure to win over the average Egyptian voter out in the sticks. Egyptian Liberals are only united by their anti-Islamism. They’ve made bad friends with the jingoists in Wafd. Truth is, not all the Islamists are hardasses and not all the Liberals are good guys. The Liberals can’t define themselves.
Abdel Aboul Fotouh is a fascinating hybrid of Islamism and Liberalism. But Aboul Fotouh has been rendered irrelevant as Egypt divides along the Islamist line. There’s Ahmed Shafik the caretaker prime minister: he’s a law and order guy who was tarred by being a part of the old Mubarak NDP. But Shafik represents the old power brokers under Mubarak and those power brokers haven’t gone away. We haven’t heard the last from Shafik. Even the arrogant MB made sure SCAF and their hangers-on remained immune from constitutional oversight.
Mursi faces huge domestic problems: all the current reading of tea leaves might be a waste of time. Egypt is hungry and the hungry are restive, as the French monarchy found out. Egypt lacks resources but more importantly Mursi is utterly lacking in soft skills. He’s burned all his bridges. His administration is incompetent and overwhelmed. Mursi has no mandate: he tried to raise taxes, only to withdraw in the face of criticism.
And there is the judiciary. MB intends to pack their ranks with their own. What role will Al Azhar University have in court rulings? Will MB and the Salafis go to war over who renders Islamic rulings? None of this has been set forth in the constitution. That’s a real possibility, a struggle for Islamic-er-Than-Thou between the traditionally Sufi ulema of Al Azhar and the Salafis: the Sufi reject the Salafi completely. What about freedom of speech, un-Islamic television advertisements, the role of women in society, religious police? Even the faintest wisp of democracy in Iraq and Kuwait led to Islamic repression.
Some while back, the IMF proposed a 5 billion dollar loan to Egypt, only to withhold it when the riots struck. The IMF loan will probably go through for Egypt is one of those Too Big to Fail states. But the IMF will demand austerity measures, sure to cripple MB, whose only mandate arises from its massive welfare state mechanisms. If Mursi can’t raise taxes and cut spending, the bottom falls out.
How does any of this affect America? Which principles should guide us as we interact with Egypt? The Obama administration’s public posture has been to back a democratic process, advocating for minority and women’s rights. Doubtless there’s lots going on behind the scenes but from where I sit, Obama doesn’t seem particularly involved. During the NGO crisis last March, the USA could have said something meaningful. SCAF dissolves parliament and the USA confined itself to Diplo-speak, “expressing concern”, whatever that meant.
Here’s the simple truth: Egyptians don’t like the USA and don’t like people who do. Lots of Egyptians are virulently antisemitic. They abuse the Copts. That being the case, it doesn’t matter what we say, might as well come right out and paint some red lines. If we don’t stand up for inclusive multi-confessional government with a constitution with a meaningful bill of rights and a free press and separation of powers and an independent judiciary, America will once again be playing footsie with the Devil We Know, as we did with Pharaoh Mubarak. And we know how well that worked out.
That said, the USA did work with Mursi on the latest blow-up in Gaza. We’re not completely out of the loop. For all I know, we might be playing a constructive role out of sight. Probably better that way, anyway.
What does Egypt’s new political class fear? What might motivate them to change their ways and start cooperating with each other? One word: Algeria.
If Egypt’s politicians can’t get their act together, the military will sweep them out of power. Then Cinderella’s clock will chime midnight and the MB will go back to being a secretive opposition party, doing more jail time. And there will be no prince come searching, glass slipper in hand. It will be a dusty old shoe, slapped on the top of their heads. And Egypt will get a new boss, same as the old boss.