The Ghosts of Egypt’s Past

Courtesy of The Brookings Institution.

Courtesy of The Brookings Institution.


After more than a month of tense, political deadlock in Egypt following the ouster of President Morsi on July 3rd, horrendous violence has manifested in the streets of Cairo and other cities throughout the country. Reports on the death toll range from 638 to more than 2,000, with the true number of people killed likely falling somewhere in-between. And while the camps on either side of this crisis predictably blame the other for sparking the initial violence, the events of August 14th reflect major strategic blunders made by both the Muslim Brotherhood and by the Egyptian military leaders.

As for the opposition, Erica Chenoweth has astutely pointed out that the Muslim Brotherhood relied too heavily on a single protest tactic to achieve their goals. Successful civil resistance campaigns usually involve a combination of methods such as strikes, boycotts, or stay-away demonstrations, which are used in a strategic sequence – not just sit-ins. The regime’s actions reflect a strategic misstep as well. Such blunt and violent repression of the Islamist camps will only convince some Brotherhood members that the only viable option to secure their interests is through more radical methods. How long before some Muslim Brotherhood followers resort to organized attacks against security personnel, or even terrorist attacks against civilians?

In this current iteration of the confrontation between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s ruling junta ought to remember past attempts to repress the country’s most pervasive Islamist movement. During the 1960s, Nasser’s thugs threw hundreds of prominent Muslim Brotherhood members in prison. And while Nasser’s repressive tactics may have expunged a political threat in the short-term, it created an networked environment in which Muslim Brotherhood members radicalized further in prison. The ideological grandfather of Salafi jihadism, Sayyid Qutb, is one example. A decade later, a young Ayman al-Zawahiri laid the groundwork for al-Qaeda within the same Egyptian jails.

Now, as the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters have experienced fierce repression by the state, with many senior Brotherhood leaders arrested, the regime may be repeating mistakes of the past. Some Islamists who still take to the streets, despite the deaths of hundreds of their comrades, likely perceive the political situation as a zero-sum game. If their interests are not credibly considered by the state, it would not be surprising if some turned to militancy and, possibly, terrorism to achieve their goals. In a situation where the military can remove a democratically elected president at will, some Islamists may be convinced that adopting violence is the only way to secure what they view as their legitimate claim to power.

For the country to move toward long-term stability, the military establishment must find a way to incorporate the Muslim Brotherhood into the political process immediately, not isolate them. While it is unthinkable that the military will concede to the Brotherhood’s central demand of re-instating Morsi, providing a genuine political pathway for future inclusion is crucial to forestalling more violence. Indeed, Krueger shows that violence against the state is less likely when there are constructive political channels for action. Moreover, Heger finds that groups are less likely to use violence against civilians when those groups participate in electoral politics.

What we have witnessed in Egypt these past few days can be traced back to the failure of Egypt’s institutions. In a divisive climate that rewards politicians who default to their traditional corners of the political divide instead of engaging in constructive dialogue and which promotes exclusion as the way to consolidate power, it is unsurprising that Egypt is in deep crisis. The country desperately needs instruments of good governance, that is: institutions that are accountable, transparent, and inclusive, that can set the rules and policies guiding the overall system. To this end, several things seem timely.

First, as the Constitution is revised, it must include substantial limits on the power of the executive branch. Effective governance systems universally feature top-down compliance methods, but they also must include mechanisms to check the power at the top. Unless the citizenry is confident that Egypt’s institutions can withstand the winds of political change, it is unlikely that they will invest their trust in the system. Decades of authoritarian rule in Egypt have helped to develop the supremacy of the president – a system that was obviously abused by Mohammed Morsi and which led to the massive protests against him. Egypt desperately needs a legitimating system that includes mechanisms of compliance for all actors, from the most powerful to the marginal. By instituting certain controls on the executive, a revised Constitution can protect against future executive power-grabs and subsequent military intervention. Reforms might include re-establishing judicial review of the executive, and lessening the executive’s strong leverage over the law-making process. Of course, such reforms would need to precede a presidential election so that the mistakes from Morsi’s administration are not repeated.

Second, assuming that the military is genuine about a transition to democracy, the regime must allow participation of the Muslim Brotherhood. The trust between the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood has been severely strained, but a system of inclusive governance can still facilitate cooperation and communication among dissimilar parties, despite divergent preferences. The regime ought to understand the risks inherent in barring the Islamists from the political process. Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is an important segment of Egyptian politics. Even though their popular support has waned since their election victories in 2012, they still command the allegiance of millions of Egyptians. Such a voting bloc will be influential in any election and the regime cannot afford to isolate it, politically or otherwise. Doing so would greatly inflate the risk of political violence, exacerbating the economic woes of the country. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood must commit to comply with Egypt’s institutions. Egypt’s political system can only achieve stability if all parties abide by the same rules. This would mean allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to take part in the next round of elections, albeit with the understanding that all groups must respect the final outcome. The time of protest sit-ins as a political tool must give way to institutional participation. Certainly, governance practices like a more robust check on the executive and comprehensive political inclusion would create a system of rules that may not please every Egyptian completely. But it will work toward tackling the problems that plague the country as a whole, namely political instability and pervasive cynicism toward its institutions.

Patrick James is a guest contributor, and currently works at the One Earth Future Foundation.

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