In a forgotten burst of national unity, Egyptians rejoiced on February 11, 2011, amazed at what they had done: forced a longtime autocrat from office with massive protests throughout the country. In the outwardly immaculate political moment of that uprising, it was easy to conceive of a peaceful transition to an open, democratic, just, and more prosperous future. Less than two years later, that seeming democratic genesis has lapsed into hard political realities. A new constitution has been approved. But preliminary figures report less than two-thirds approval (a very low rate in a country where voters have become accustomed to being asked to say yes) and a turnout of under one-third. Today, the fruits of the revolution seem bitter indeed—fratricidal political struggles, outraged and outrageous accusations, occasional violence, and fear.

Egypt’s revolution was made by a collection of intrepid activists with diffuse agendas, crowds of ordinary citizens entering politics for the first time, Muslim Brotherhood cadres that were disciplined but cautious, and state bodies that either stayed aloof or were unable to defend the old regime. But the very characteristics that served the cause of political change in early 2011 later entrenched both suspicions and suspicious behavior.

Nathan J. Brown
Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, is a distinguished scholar and author of six well-received books on Arab politics.
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At this point, the sins of the past year and a half seem very clear, especially in light of the bitterness engendered on all sides by the constitutional referendum. The tale would seem to be one of overreaching and majoritarian Islamists, fractious and incompetent non-Islamist opposition actors, and scheming elements of a deep state.

Egypt’s various political actors blame each other for bad faith, and for good reason. The Islamists have behaved in ways that vindicate their critics’ worst prejudices. Some non-Islamists claim to speak for a people even when a majority of that people specifically delegates their opponents to speak on its behalf. The opposition has struggled to find either unity or a strategy. And important parts of the state apparatus have hampered the transition, with some state actors routinely confusing their own institutional interests with those of the entire society.

But while there have been transgressions aplenty, they are as much effect as cause. Behind them lies a deeply problematic transition process. The process created an environment that encouraged actors to adopt strategies and tactics that made sense for them over the short term but have proved very harmful for Egypt’s long-term political reconstruction.

If there is any cause for hope now, it is that the constitutional referendum might force actors to recalculate. The Brotherhood might finally realize that it can get much of what it wants through less heavy-handed methods, and the opposition might find that the electoral process offers it the greatest possibilities of success. Only if actors perceive their options differently can Egypt break free from its current crisis.

Original Sin: A Flawed Process

Egyptians are operating in a framework that would have been difficult for angels to manage fairly. The Egyptian transition was not badly designed; it was not designed at all. The original sin of the Egyptian transition lies in a series of short-sighted decisions taken by generally well-meaning but myopic actors thrust into limited authority in February and March 2011. At the time, there were extended debates about the sequence of presidential elections, parliamentary elections, and constitution writing. But much of that debate missed the point and blinded both analysts and activists to the real mistakes that were being made.

The most basic problem was that the process accorded absolute authority in the transition to the military command—for no other reason than that the military command claimed it and nobody at first knew what else to do. The soundest alternative proposed a presidency council that would have compelled the main political forces in the country, if they could be identified and could manage their differences, to move forward by consensus. Revolutionary groups did not unify around this idea until it was too late.

So the military was free to take the next misstep of charging a tiny ad hoc committee to develop a plan for the transition by amending a set of articles in Egypt’s constitution that had been selected by Egypt’s tottering president, Hosni Mubarak. The amendments, drafted in private, were rushed to a March 2011 referendum. The generals then unilaterally inserted those amendments into a wholly new constitutional declaration, setting aside the country’s old constitution. The authors of the declaration have never been revealed, but they set a dangerous precedent in which they allowed those sitting at the head of the political order to claim “le pouvoir constituant, c’est moi” or, more prosaically, “the constitution is whatever I say it is.”

The new constitutional declaration picked provisions from the suspended 1971 constitution and omitted others without explanation. Among the excised provisions were those dealing with making constitutional amendments, which meant that if a change needed to be made the text—and some changes became necessary in the eyes of various actors—first the military and then the president had to assert power over the constitution. If such constitutional changes were made after widespread consultation, they may have been palatable. But the generals were unsurprisingly bad at consultation, and later on the first freely elected president turned out disastrously worse.

The suspicions began to set in immediately with the March referendum. Islamists suspected that their revolutionary partners’ real agenda was to delay any elections that were suggested out of fear of how well Islamists would do. Non-Islamists felt with similar legitimacy that Islamists were shoving hard for a vote so they could elbow their way into the most seats at the table.

Such political rivalries were not in themselves bad. The deeper problem was that the only way to settle them was not through negotiation, compromise, and consensus but by pressuring, nagging, and bargaining with the generals. Suspicions of separate deals and secret agreements deepened fears, and Egypt’s actors learned quickly that allegations need not be coupled with evidence in order to be taken seriously.

A more consensual process could certainly have been designed given the environment. The differences over what Egypt’s political machinery should look like were actually not that great. Much of the basic framework—a weaker presidency, stronger freedoms, more democratic procedures, judicial independence—united almost the entire political spectrum. But the tiny ad hoc committee had, acting largely in haste, inserted a number of time bombs into the procedures.

These procedures stipulated that a new constitution would be drafted by 100 figures chosen by a parliament. This offered no guarantee that everyone would have a voice. The draft produced by the assembly was to be presented immediately to the electorate for an up-or-down vote by simple majority.

No one realized at that time how much the procedures specified would favor Islamists. Islamist electoral strength was expected, but the extent of their eventual parliamentary and presidential victories came as a surprise.

This was a process designed to work well only if there was already a deep consensus; it could hardly produce one.

As the awkward and hastily designed mechanisms of March 2011 swung slowly into action, interests gradually became entrenched around them. The idea of negotiating a set of binding “supraconstitutional principles” to guide the constitution-writing process was floated and then turned by various actors into a way to protect their partisan interests. Non-Islamists explicitly favored the idea as a way to tie Islamists’ hands, Islamists resisted it for the same reason, and the military saw it as a way of inserting its preferred constitutional provisions.

The Sins of Implementation

As Egypt’s transition stumbled forward, there was nothing to deliver various political forces into anything other than the temptations generated by mutual envy, wrath at adversaries, and greed for political power. The gaps opened in March lay not only in the areas of permanent political reconstruction but also in governance during the transition period.

Some critical (if dormant) provisions in the 1971 constitution for parliamentary oversight of the executive were surgically removed from the March 2011 constitutional declaration. Parliamentarians finally seated in January 2012 found that as hard as they pulled the political levers in front of them, nothing seemed to happen: they had no influence over the composition of the cabinet or over policy. Indeed, even when they worked on ordinary legislation, they faced possible military veto over any initiative.

Very quickly concluding that they were being forced to bear responsibility for the government’s poor policy performance without being allowed any effective authority, Muslim Brotherhood leaders complained vociferously. In response, they claim, the leadership threatened to see that their Freedom and Justice Party’s triumph in the early 2012 parliamentary elections was reversed by court decision. The Brotherhood says that threat thrust it fully into presidential politics, leading it to reverse a long-standing decision not to nominate a candidate for the post. As the political environment deteriorated, the Brotherhood no longer felt the same need to reassure other actors that the Islamists would not take a strong stance. Its former slogan, “Participation, not domination,” was buried.

Just as harmful as the hardball tactics was the escalating rhetoric on all sides. It was not only difficult to sort rumor from fact; it was also infrequently attempted. Politically active Egyptians seemed to talk inside their own bubbles—and those bubbles filtered out all but the shrillest voices coming from other camps.

A parliament that had no authority was immediately criticized for doing nothing. It was not unusual to hear non-Islamists charge that the body was concerned only with lowering the marriage age.

Such a charge was demonstrably false (one of the parliament’s main priorities was a liberalized NGO law), but it did the trick. When the parliament was dissolved by court order in June 2012, only Islamists mourned its passing.

Islamists in the parliament, before it was dissolved, did use their majority to form the Constituent Assembly—they did so twice, in fact, because their first attempt was turned back by a court. In doing so, they began to follow the pattern of showing only enough self-restraint to convince themselves of their own good intentions.

Both in the composition of the assembly and in its work, Islamists made real concessions but hardly enough to bring their opponents along. To be fair, a strong and cohesive non-Islamist bloc within the assembly would probably have wrung very serious concessions from a dominant Brotherhood group anxious to get any constitution passed. But to bemoan the non-Islamist opposition for its disunity misses the point. Without that disunity, the revolution may not have been so decisive. It was precisely the fact that so many of the forces claiming the revolutionary mantle emerged quickly and outside of the regular political channels that made them so formidable in early 2011 when they brought Mubarak down.

So Egypt neared the completion of the ill-conceived transition process with a variety of political actors using whatever weapons lay within reach. Islamists had learned that elections and majority rule worked to their advantage. Important state institutions learned that their best tactic was threaten, cajole, and bargain to fend off Egypt’s new Islamist leaders from encroaching on their (broadly defined) turf. And the opposition learned that its best (and sometimes only) option was to complain, criticize, boycott, and demonstrate.

Mortal Sin? Morsi’s Coup

It was this fragile set of political arrangements that President Mohamed Morsi, elected in June 2012 and affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, attacked with a sledgehammer in late November and early December—all with the avowed (and probably sincere) aim of making it more stable. Each one of his decisions during that time made some sense. And some were not even primarily his decision. For instance, those who condemn the Brotherhood for rushing ahead with drafting the constitution and submitting it to a referendum conveniently forget that the schedule was set in March 2011 and affirmed by Egyptian voters at that time.

But taken as a whole, Morsi’s moves amounted to a breathtaking assertion of authority and a bold assault on many unwritten (and a few written) rules of Egyptian politics; he set himself up not merely as chief executive but also as sole legislator and beyond judicial oversight. However temporary some of these moves were, Egypt will not easily recover.

The steps may have been more easily sustainable had they sprung from a broad political consensus, but Morsi did not even make a convincing feint in the direction of consultation. And he mixed his status as president with that of hailing from an oppositional social movement. In the first capacity, he claimed to be acting in the interests of the Egyptian state. But in the second, he allowed his allies in the Brotherhood to appoint themselves as a vigilante presidential guard, capable of dispersing demonstrations and detaining and bullying, at a minimum, those it suspected of conspiring in the crime of assembling outside the presidential palace.

What makes Morsi’s president-driven coup d’état of November 2012 so odd is that it was unnecessary even by the increasingly hardball standards of Egyptian politics. He asserted that the courts and the opposition were attempting to reverse the headway made during the Egyptian transition. Not only were they trying to disband the Constituent Assembly, he claimed, but they also sought to overturn his first audacious constitutional move—removing the military’s political oversight role.

But disbanding the Constituent Assembly would have by itself only resulted in freeing up Morsi to name a new one all by himself. And overturning Morsi’s move on military oversight would have been disastrous, and not merely for Morsi. It is precisely for that reason that it is extremely unlikely it would have been attempted and even more unlikely to have succeeded.

Had Morsi not taken drastic steps to reassert his authority, he and his movement would likely have received the constitution that they wanted, accompanied by ineffectual opposition grousing rather than the storm of mobilized protest they received.

Instead Morsi acted, and the reactions are stunning. The opposition is seeking with a measure of success to relive the massive protest wave of January 2011. Outraged prosecutors have clashed with security forces in front of the High Court building. Stodgy judicial bodies have been provoked into striking and sitting out election monitoring (steps threatened but never taken in Mubarak’s day). Large parts of the press uncharacteristically silenced themselves in a day of protest. The military has returned to delphic assertions of its neutrality that leave observers guessing about its true intentions. And disarray has descended upon even the presidency itself—most memorably with a tax increase imposed at dawn and rescinded at dusk.

Polarization is complete. And it has begun to afflict the commentariat, as civil discussion seems often to be giving way among the even most dispassionate observers. It has been replaced by outraged insistence that those who do not see events a specific way have lost touch with reality, morality, or both.

The passage of the constitution thus resolves matters only on paper. The rules of Egypt’s political game are now codified. But they operate in a context in which the state apparatus is divided and damaged, the opposition is highly mobilized and deeply angry, even the governing coalition feels profoundly aggrieved, and all political actors show that their rhetoric knows no bounds. Their actions threaten to follow suit.

Possibilities for Redemption

Egypt’s passion of November and December 2012 may—if Egyptians are more fortunate than they have been recently—generate some possibilities for redeeming the promise of the revolution. The deepest problems with the Egyptian transition have not been the result of actors who acted badly—though most actors have. They stem from an inchoate political environment in which the various actors reached desperately for whatever tools were easiest or most available.

The incentives now may be different—or, more importantly, they may be read differently by Egypt’s main political actors. Most importantly, President Morsi may come to realize that he can govern as president either over the corpses of his opponents or merely over their strenuous objection. The first path has seemed easier for the past month, but the second is more likely to ensure he oversees a polity worth governing.

Mounting pressures could also lead the Muslim Brotherhood to take a more conciliatory approach. The opposition is mobilized and articulate; in the referendum it was able to field a credible electoral challenge to the Islamists on short notice. Parts of Egyptian society now look outside the Islamist camp for champions of social justice issues. And upcoming parliamentary elections will force Islamists to explain what they have done with the confidence placed in them by Egyptian citizens.

The Brotherhood prides itself on being flexible and on its ability to learn painful lessons. The movement does not have to change its spots going forward, but it will need to allow its outer appearance of congeniality—invisible for the last month, to be sure—to affect its way of thinking and behavior.

Such a shift will not come easily for Morsi and the movement that produced him, but it must come quickly if it comes at all. And it would entail drafting an electoral law that reflects the opposition’s concerns, limiting the use of interim legislative authority, adopting a more permissive attitude toward organized dissent, and even demonstrating a willingness to countenance serious (and not merely cosmetic) constitutional reform.

Morsi is president, and thus he bears the primary burden of leading Egypt out of the desert of political polarization. But the opposition will need to learn to act like an opposition—that is, it must be focused and strategic in the use of the democratic mechanisms available to it in the new constitution. Above all, various elements of the opposition will have to develop clear alternative visions and learn how to present them in a manner that attracts voters.

This may not be a hopeless task precisely because of the events of the past month. Outraged objection—that for some elements betrayed an unwillingness to accept democratic outcomes—has gradually evolved into a more limited insistence that legality should be respected and that voters must be presented with fair choices. The opposition seems to appreciate that an unfair political game might still be worth playing as long as it offers some possibilities for change.

And the game, whether or not completely unfair, still seems tilted for now in the Islamist direction. It is not simply that non-Islamists have trouble accepting democratic outcomes, though some do. But there are very legitimate grounds for concern about the Islamists’ dominance of the system. For instance, the new constitution empowers a presidency that Islamists know they will hold at least until 2016, protects a parliamentary electoral system that produced an Islamist majority one year ago, and allows the parliamentary majority considerable latitude in defining the operative meaning of many of its provisions.

Egypt’s redemption will begin—and the sacrifices of the Egyptian nation will not have been made in vain—only if the country’s most powerful political actors learn to abjure the forbidden fruits that they have feasted on so handsomely for the past year.