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Op-Ed

In an Islamist Egypt, can diversity survive?

If non-Islamists and liberals want a role in shaping the nation's future, a constructive, coordinated opposition will have to emerge.

September 16, 2012|By Michael Wahid Hanna and Elijah Zarwan
  • An Egyptian woman holds a black flag with Islamic inscription in Arabic that reads, "No God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet," in front of the U.S. embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
An Egyptian woman holds a black flag with Islamic inscription in Arabic… (Nasser Nasser / Associated…)

Egypt is now set to enter arguably its first period of Islamist rule. How long that period lasts and what form it takes is far from determined, a situation highlighted by the protests and violence in Cairo last week. If all goes according to plan — a big "if" in Egypt — Egyptians who believe in a democratic, civil state theoretically have the remainder of President Mohamed Morsi's term of office to get their collective act together.

But practically speaking, the short-term political calendar will not allow them such a lengthy reprieve, with the likelihood of new parliamentary elections in the coming months and the current debate over a new constitution. Although broad-based national political action requires patient grass-roots organizational efforts that will take years, the current phase of the country's transition will go a long way toward fashioning a new legal and political order.

If non-Islamists and liberals hope to preserve any chance of having a role in shaping the nation's future, a constructive, engaged and coordinated opposition will have to emerge. Those who truly believe in a civil, democratic state must overcome two bad habits: sniping from the sidelines, as they did under Hosni Mubarak, and splitting into factions, as they have since time immemorial.

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Following the heady days of Egypt's uprising, the story of the country's transition has largely been dictated by the struggle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its military interlocutors. To the extent these two traditional antagonists have been able to reach stable accommodations and pacts, they have largely held sway.

We may never know what happened in the corridors of power in the days leading up to Morsi's surprise military shake-up in August. However, whether through acquiescence or outright collaboration, Morsi appears to have made his peace with enough of the remaining senior leadership now that the obstinate, old military brass has been swept aside. The exact parameters of that accommodation between civilian and military leaders will evolve over time, and the armed forces will undoubtedly remain an important center of authority.

But now that Morsi has apparently settled the question of whether he or the generals run domestic affairs, Egypt's non-Islamists and liberals can no longer hide behind the military. Their strategy of making Faustian bargains with the generals, of sacrificing "some" democracy in exchange for a "civil" (non-religious) state, has been shown to be as ineffective as it was morally bankrupt.

Preaching to Muslim Brotherhood politicians that they should be less Islamist or less politically self-serving has proved to be naive and ineffectual. The conduct of these politicians since the fall of Mubarak makes it clear that they seek to consolidate power and to implement their agenda — an Islamist agenda.

Furthermore, with significant pressure from more rigid Salafist elements to his right, as was vividly on display in aspects of last week's demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Morsi will face stiff challenges if he does shift course and seek a more inclusive approach to governance.

In the meantime, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are carving out control of as much of the state as they can. No doubt they see these steps as necessary for implementing their plans for reform and delivering on their promises of a better life for Egyptians. Be that as it may, there is currently no credible institutional check on their power to make domestic policy.

It would be foolhardy for Egyptian opposition leaders, however, to again place their faith in the ability of the military to serve as a check on the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such authority, to the extent that it might exist, is inherently undemocratic and lacks transparency. Similarly, the opposition should take no great comfort in the ability of bottom-up pressure generated by mass mobilization and public protest to serve as a barrier to the monopolization of power and the abuse of authority. In a weary society craving a modicum of stability, such public shows of force may never again be re-created.

But despite its dominant position in Egyptian politics today, the electoral strength of the Muslim Brotherhood should not be taken as a given. The demands of leadership, the magnitude of Egypt's challenges and the high expectations of the populace have already begun to erode its widespread popularity. The fluidity of political dynamics and the shallowness of party allegiances were clearly on display in the first round of the presidential elections, when Morsi won only a quarter of the vote.

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