A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, November 26, 2012

Morsi's Constitutional Coup

At Mohammed Mahmoud Entrance to Tahrir:
"Entry Prohibited to the Brotherhood"
The photo above is of Cairo's Mohammed Mahmoud Street, where it enters Tahrir Square (and thus two highly symbolic places to the Egyptian Revolution join): the banner reads "No entry for Ikhwan" (the Brotherhood). It's one reflection of the anger that has erupted in Egypt since Muhammad Morsi's constitutional coup/power grab last Thursday.

It was Thanksgiving Day here when Morsi staged his preemptive strike against the judiciary, just as he made his move against the army last August when I was on vacation. I'm getting a little tired of his sense of timing. This time I pondered posting over the holiday but since there was no shortage of commentary available over the US holiday weekend, I decided to hold off and see how events evolved over a few days.

Before I comment myself, a "suggested readings" of the debate so far. First, the English text of the "Constitutional Declaration" itself.  Each of the first five articles can probably be defended by Morsi's supporters and defenders. It's Article VI that one immediately trips over, though: "The President may take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution." If that doesn't mean he can do anything he wants to, then what does it mean?

Of comments so far, if you haven't already seen them, check out Nathan Brown here and here,  Issandr El Amrani here and here, Mark Lynch here, Tarek Radwan here, "M.R." (Max Rodenbeck I presume) at The Economist blog here, Bassem Sabry at Al-Monitor here, Seifeldin Fawzy at Jadaliyya here, and my apologies to all the commentary I haven't mentioned here.

And in the Twitterverse, whoever originated the hashtag #Morsillini (Morsi + Mussolini) is also deserving of mention.

What can I add to all the words already written? Well. while I agree with those commentators who think that there is room for compromise and for Morsi to back down a bit, either by guaranteeing an expiration date for his decrees or backing off on the most draconian of them, I worry that the window for compromise may be closing. People are dying in the streets again. Worse, clashes between protestors and the Brotherhood in provincial cities like Damanhur and Tanta raise the prospect of spreading social conflict. Whatever Morsi's real intentions, if his Muslim Brotherhood allies and their secular opponents come to see the conflict as a zero-sum game, options for compromise may vanish.  Already those who said all along that the Brotherhood's commitment to democracy would fade once it had won an election are starting to appear vindicated, and those, myself included, who felt the MB deserved a chance to prove it really was committed to pluralism are feeling betrayed.

If the Brotherhood indeed is determined to control the writing of the Constitution and thus ensure its own dominance, the question will be whether it has the strength to pull it off. Morsi won quite narrowly, and his 51.73% of the vote included a great many "lesser of two evils" voters who feared Ahmad Shafiq even more. In the multi-candidate first round, Morsi only got 24.78% of the vote. Not exactly a mandate for personal rule. The number of people coming to Morsi's defense shows his support may go beyond the Brotherhood itself, and certainly some of his moves (such as dumping the hated Mubarak-era Prosecutor) are popular.But has he overreached? It looks like it, but it also looks like the Brotherhood is ready for some sort of showdown.

The disunity among the liberal and secular parties and political forces is of course well known, and while they may be better organized than they were a year ago for the Parliamentary elections, their ability to face down Morsi and the  Islamist bloc is still slender.

Certainly I suspect Morsi has wasted much of the international credit he was receiving for his role in the Gaza cease-fire; his overseas press turned around 180 degrees overnight. But will domestic unrest ad foreign criticism be enough to force him to back down, or will he hang tough and rule autocratically? Some combination of Brotherhood discipline, Islamist fervor and traditional Egyptian respect for centralized authority could let him succeed, but not without a strong opposition movement and perhaps a new revolutionary effort, though perhaps doomed to failure without the Islamists supporting it. Scenarios could range from a religious dictatorship (Iran is not a good parallel, though) through a spectrum of ongoing conflict (a spectrum anywhere from dissidence to civil war), or, of course, to Morsi meaning what he says when he says the powers are "temporary." (Mubarak's 30+ year state of emergency was also temporary.)

And, of course, there's always the elephant in the room. Does Morsi have the Army's loyalty? His August coup against the senior Army leadership succeeded with the acquiescence of the younger generals, all of whom received promotions. Some are no doubt Brotherhood sympathizers, but there was no selective purge, just a retirement of the upper echelon. No one knows what the military's current loyalties may be, but if violence deepens, either between protesters and the police or between the Brotherhood and secularists, the Army might be tempted to move. But no one is really sure what they are thinking, or even if they are united in a single viewpoint. (The same can be said for the various Interior Ministry forces, not so long ago the enemies of the Brotherhood but today defending Morsi in the streets.)

The bottom line for now I think: it's not to late for a strategic retreat by Morsi that preserves most of his goals but reassures society, but the longer things spin out of control, the less likely a compromise becomes. And that could be bad news indeed.

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