A Choice of Two Tyrannies

Source: Getty
Op-Ed National Interest
Summary
The confrontation between Islamist and secular parties is the most dangerous crisis in Egypt’s unhappy political transition. The battle for control will not lead to democracy.
Related Topics
Related Media and Tools
 

The recent confrontation in Egypt between Islamist and secular parties has caused the most dangerous crisis yet in that country’s unhappy political transition. The standoff is the unavoidable consequence of a struggle for power between two political forces that have no incentive to compete in the same political arena on the basis of accepted rules of the game. One side fights through the vote and the other through the courts—and both appeal to the streets to bypass the official political process.

The confrontation increasingly is taking on the character of a Greek tragedy, with Egypt hurtling toward authoritarianism no matter which side prevails. The only question is whether it will be the tyranny of the Islamist majority or that of the secular minority. Either way, the prospects for a democratic denouement to the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 are dim—non-existent in the short-run and questionable at best in the medium-run, with the long run too distant to hazard predictions.

In its essence, the situation in Egypt is quite simple. Islamist political parties have widespread popular support, while secular parties have influence over state institutions. Unsurprisingly, each side uses its strong suit to prevail. Islamists gained 70 percent of the seats in the parliamentary elections of early 2012 and won the battle for the presidency in June, although by a small margin. Secularists responded by demanding, and obtaining, an order that the parliament be disbanded by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled the election law unconstitutional. As a result, new elections will be held shortly after the new constitution is enacted. Secular parties may fare somewhat better this time, but nobody believes that they can win.

Competing for power with the Islamists is not a united opposition, but an array of fragmented secular parties, led by prominent personalities who are better at preaching the necessity of uniting in a broad alliance than at following their own recommendation. The politics of secular alliances has so far been a kaleidoscope, with parties combining in different formation, all ephemeral. Secular parties have little electoral support, no message with widespread appeal and no apparatus to reach deeply into the society to drum up support.

Secular strength, which is considerable, is of a different nature: their leaders are part of the old elite of the Mubarak period, which still controls the major institutions of the state, including the judiciary. This is not to say that all members of the secular opposition held positions of power under Mubarak. More broadly, however, they were part of a social stratum that thrived under the Mubarak regime. It was granted some political space as long as it did not openly defy that system, which stymied freedom but also afforded protection against rising Islamist organizations.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the secular opposition should rely on state institutions—above all the courts—to undo the result of the elections it lost, filing an array of lawsuits challenging the parliamentary elections and winning some key decisions. The Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling disbanded the parliament and declared the composition of the first Constituent Assembly formed by the parliament unconstitutional. It is set to rule on the constitutionality of the second Constituent Assembly on December 2.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is the target of a lawsuit that demands it be outlawed because it is a religious party and the 1971 constitution bans religious parties. The battle in the courts has a somewhat surreal character, because the Supreme Constitutional Court is issuing judgments on the basis of the 1971 Constitution that was abrogated after Mubarak was overthrown.

President Mohammed Morsi responded on November 22 by issuing a constitutional declaration that would give all his decisions immunity from court rulings, a logical development in a battle for power that pits the authority of the courts against that of the ballot box. Islamists won elections, and the courts annulled them. Now Islamists are annulling the power of the courts. There are no good and bad guys in this battle, only politics and expediency on both sides. And Egypt will be dragged toward renewed authoritarianism no matter who prevails.

There are two wildcards in this battle that neither side controls: the street and the military. The outcome of the confrontation in the short run may well depend on them. Morsi’s decision brought crowds back to Tahrir Square to protest the edict as an attack on the “revolution.” Demonstrators have included the same mixture of secular organizations—united for a change—and youth groups that helped bring down Mubarak, but absent from the crowd are Islamists, who were an important factor in 2011. The crowds have so far been nowhere as large as those of 2011, either because of demonstration fatigue or the lack of Islamists, who have threatened to call for their own demonstrations, but have refrained from protests pending talks between President Morsi and judges. Nobody knows at this point who has the capacity to mobilize more people. But if the two sides decide to measure their strength, the danger of a violent confrontation is great.

The second wildcard is the position the military would take if such confrontation occurred. And this brings us to the second unknown factor. In 2011, the military was crucial to avoiding large-scale bloodshed. Although some 800 people died in the uprising, the toll was nothing compared to what it could have been had the army decided to intervene to protect Mubarak. After ruling the country through its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces between Mubarak’s downfall and President Morsi’s election, the military withdrew from politics last August and has not been heard since.

With a confrontation looming between secular and Islamist forces in the streets of Cairo and other cities, the military may not be able to remain on the sidelines. There are undoubtedly both Islamist and secular sympathies within the military, and their conflict could have a significant impact.

After almost two years of an uncertain and poorly managed transition, the battle for control over Egypt is now fully engaged. It will not lead to democracy. Egypt’s transition is not drawing to a close and the future promises to be messier than the past.

This article originally appeared in the National Interest.

End of document

About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.

 

Comments (4)

 
 
  • A. Fayed
    3 Recommends
     
    I agree with most of the article. There is one point I'd like to clarify though, the claim that Islamist are the majority isn't accurate. The majority of Egyptians are still non-political and they still change their minds very quickly. In the first round of the presidential election that led to Morsi's winning, there was 5 major candidates; 3 secular and 2 Islamist. Adding the votes these 5 got, secularist clearly won. But the divide at that stage wasn't secular-islamic, it was revolution-old regime divide. And that's why many pro-change secular votes went to Morsi against his rival (Mubarak's old friend : Shifiq). I agree with the writer that islamist are more organized and that the role of the army and western governments might be very important. The picture is far from being that simple and even short term predictions aren't easy.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • Ahmed in NYC
    1 Recommend
     
    Excellent objective analysis that is due credit because with hind sight we find that Ms Ottaway is right on the mark, considering how confusing the situation looks for outsiders. I do agree though with Ms Ottaway when we look at the basics yes the situation is clear, if we do not get distracted by intentional small side games played by both sides in Egypt. Good job Ms Ottaway and yes very objective.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • Guest
    1 Recommend
     
    The Islamists are not a majority in Egypt. In the parliamentary elections , with the NDP gone, they were the only ones with a grassroots network and name recognition necessary to succeed in the "list" voting system were the MB and the Salafis. In the presidential election, Morsi only got 25% of the vote [as did Shafiq]   The run-off was called the "Fire or Shame" choice. This meant that the 50% of the population that rejected both frontrunners now had to chose between them or stay home! The Islamist advantage is organization and invoking Islam and Sharia among ordinary voters. Their sense of entitlement after 80 years of great sacrifice is an overwhelming incentive.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • Sunny Enwerem
    1 Recommend
     
    In a country that democracy is abused by the act of protest after protest the military and the court should come in to save the daily life of the most that are tired of the meaningless daily protest on d street of a should be thriving country or has the revolution come to be a course to the Egyptians?so far only a dictator will have his way.
     
     
    Reply to this post

     
    Close Panel
  • Report Abuse
Source http://carnegieendowment.org/2012/11/29/choice-of-two-tyrannies/eo18

More from The Global Think Tank

In Fact

 

45%

of the Chinese general public

believe their country should share a global leadership role.

30%

of Indian parliamentarians

have criminal cases pending against them.

140

charter schools in the United States

are linked to Turkey’s Gülen movement.

2.5–5

thousand tons of chemical weapons

are in North Korea’s possession.

92%

of import tariffs

among Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru have been eliminated.

$2.34

trillion a year

is unaccounted for in official Chinese income statistics.

37%

of GDP in oil-exporting Arab countries

comes from the mining sector.

72%

of Europeans and Turks

are opposed to intervention in Syria.

90%

of Russian exports to China

are hydrocarbons; machinery accounts for less than 1%.

13%

of undiscovered oil

is in the Arctic.

17

U.S. government shutdowns

occurred between 1976 and 1996.

40%

of Ukrainians

want an “international economic union” with the EU.

120

million electric bicycles

are used in Chinese cities.

60–70%

of the world’s energy supply

is consumed by cities.

58%

of today’s oils

require unconventional extraction techniques.

67%

of the world's population

will reside in cities by 2050.

50%

of Syria’s population

is expected to be displaced by the end of 2013.

18%

of the U.S. economy

is consumed by healthcare.

81%

of Brazilian protesters

learned about a massive rally via Facebook or Twitter.

32

million cases pending

in India’s judicial system.

1 in 3

Syrians

now needs urgent assistance.

370

political parties

contested India’s last national elections.

70%

of Egypt's labor force

works in the private sector.

70%

of oil consumed in the United States

is for the transportation sector.

20%

of Chechnya’s pre-1994 population

has fled to different parts of the world.

58%

of oil consumed in China

was from foreign sources in 2012.

$536

billion in goods and services

traded between the United States and China in 2012.

$100

billion in foreign investment and oil revenue

have been lost by Iran because of its nuclear program.

4700%

increase in China’s GDP per capita

between 1972 and today.

$11

billion have been spent

to complete the Bushehr nuclear reactor in Iran.

2%

of Iran’s electricity needs

is all the Bushehr nuclear reactor provides.

78

journalists

were imprisoned in Turkey as of August 2012 according to the OSCE.

Stay in the Know

Enter your email address in the field below to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!

Personal Information
 
 
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
 
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.

请注意...

你将离开清华—卡内基中心网站,进入卡内基其他全球中心的网站。