Overcoming obstacles on Egypt’s long walk to freedom

The Muslim Brotherhood may have the presidency but they can hardly lay claim to a mandate.

Morsy supporters demonstrate in Tahrir Square 370 (R) (photo credit: Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)
Morsy supporters demonstrate in Tahrir Square 370 (R)
(photo credit: Asmaa Waguih / Reuters)
Egypt’s march towards democracy appears to be dangerously tangled in a tense political standoff that could easily devolve into something more sinister.  Nature may abhor a vacuum but an unhappy stalemate can be much worse.  It creates an eerie, unnatural calm that often predicates a violent storm.  These are the times when history is made-and not always for the best.  Despite the fact that President Mohammad Morsy has moved to retire several senior generals, the military still controls most of the power.  The Muslim Brotherhood may have the presidency but they can hardly lay claim to a mandate despite having successfully won a plurality of seats in the now disbanded parliament.  The (mostly) secular demonstrators who started this revolution and who have now been temporally and somewhat bitterly relegated to the sidelines have a deep distrust for both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood because they rightly fear living under the possible totalitarian state that either group might impose.
At times like these, it’s best to let fervent idealism yield to a more tempered pragmatism.  To that end, it might be worthwhile to examine how we got to this nodal point and-more importantly-how each of these three main, albeit rather diverse, groups might be disposed to moving forward by recognizing the legitimate hopes and fears of the other two.    
Firstly, we have a very flawed, atomized political system that does not adequately address the changing molecular structure of the country.  Simply stacking up the votes and then bestowing power to whomever has the biggest pile is a recipe for failure, if not outright disaster.  Real democracy is about giving voice to the people while also recognizing that “the people” is an ethereal concept much more dynamic and complex than the simple aggregate sum total of the individuals.  No nation gets this exactly right simply because there is no ‘exactly right’.  Unfortunately, however, some countries get it much less right than others.  As a result they find it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct a successful political transition because significant groups of people justifiably feel disenfranchised.  This is especially true in an emerging democracy.  Once the lid of a dictatorship is let loose-tribal, ethnic, sectarian and religious identities have a way of reasserting themselves as never before.
Ironically, this democratic flaw was made exponentially worse by the stunningly inept way the democracy activists approached the recent legislative and presidential elections.  They naively fielded several candidates for each position while the Islamic Brotherhood wisely rallied around one.  Naturally, the Islamic Brotherhood won the most seats, including the presidency.  Principles and passion are essential ingredients in any democracy but in the rubber meets the road reality of politics, it’s important to know which way the x/y paradigm is breaking.  A myopic passion can cause all kinds of people to make the same mistake.  The multi-disciplined Harvard professor and author Stephen Pinker once famously lamented the lack of perspective exhibited by his fellow academics by writing that, "In a discussion about whether or not the world is round, they would argue ‘No’ because it’s a spheroid oblate.”
The result of this intrinsically flawed electoral system along with the chaotic way most of the democratic activists have approached it has resulted in a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood has captured many more seats in the legislature than their actual numbers should reflect.  This, rather than any dictatorial designs, has caused the military’s reticence in handing over power.      
Egypt’s military has actually exhibited admirable restraint throughout this entire crisis.  The relative success of Egypt’s revolution can be directly traced to the military’s refusal to interfere with the protests while Hosni Mubarak was still in power.  The former, yet still influential, leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi has said that he wants “an Egypt for all Egyptians.”  Perhaps, we should, at least for now, take him at his word.  The reserved Tantawi can hardly be accused of building a celebrity culture around himself which is the usual first step in the dictator’s manual.  He appears ready, even eager, to acquiesce to Mursi’s executive order to step down from the SCAF and assume more of an advisory role.  As Shakespeare’s Mark Antony plainly states, “Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.”    
Although we are at a critical fail point, a vibrant, progressive democracy in Egypt is still attainable.  But it’s important to get the full political system back up and running again.  To allow the current tenuous slow dance to linger risks calcifying it into the rigid status quo which always seeks to validate and then perpetuate itself.  Meanwhile, more protests in Tahrir Square are likely to take an especially ominous turn since it will now pit activists directly against either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood.
What the military did by disbanding the legislature (through the courts) was definitely wrong.  However, it’s unclear whether the SCAF would agree to the problematic, face-losing proposition of reconvening that same legislature.  Fortunately, the order disbanding the legislature did not apply to the Shura Council which is Egypt’s upper house of Parliament.  This may present a more viable way forward.  As it stands now, the Shura Council is made up of 264 members. 176 are elected, with 88 seats appointed by the president.  If the majority of those appointed seats are tentatively reserved by President Morsi for the military; that will go a long way in reassuring them that they will have a place at the table.  The rest of those appointed seats should go to other significant minorities such as the Coptic Christians, Bedouins, Berbers and Bejas.  Women should also be adequately represented to insure their rights in the new order.
The benefits of this are three-fold: Firstly, it will significantly limit as well as guarantee the military’s involvement in the new government to a degree that everyone-the military, the Muslim Brotherhood, the secular demonstrators, the minority groups, the business community and the common Egyptians-can accept.  It will also have the effect of transferring the guardianship role that the military now has in this struggling democracy to more of a senatorial role held by the more expansive Shura Council which will include the military but encompass so much more of Egyptian society.  Lastly, but certainly not least, given Egypt’s history over the last several decades, it will be an added check against yet another strongman, either secular or Islamist, rising to power.
International observers and advisors gazing down from the insulated, ivory tower of a stable democracy may condescendingly shake their heads and cluck their tongues at the thought of the military being directly involved in the government but there is some precedence here.  The United States’ first president was the commander-in-chief of its revolutionary armed forces.  The US also elected its commanding general during the existential crises created by its just completed Civil War and yet again after the globe-altering trauma of World War II.  In comparison, having some military personal (active or not) in the Egyptian Senate to help advise and guide the country through this critical phase doesn’t seem like such an extraordinary occurrence.  If Egypt does ultimately succeed with their democracy, it may surprise everyone to see just how similar their democratic model will be to what has already worked best in the West-as opposed to a politically correct version of what the West thinks should work.
It’s also worth noting the democratic success of Turkey in the region.  The military has traditionally played a major role in maintaining that success.  Turkey has only recently started to step away from a reliance of its military to shepherd its democracy as its institutions are now more firmly established.
The first order of business of The Shura Council should be the appointing of a commission to write a new constitution.  Hopefully (make that necessarily), it will be one that cultivates a deeper democracy by giving voice to Egypt’s many diverse groups and protects the rights of women and minorities.  This should be done not so much with rigid quotas (although quotas may be a good start) but rather by structural intent.   The legislative districts need to be loosely, yet not directly, tied to ethnic and sectarian demographics.  In this way, Egypt can eventually move away from that paradigm as it eventually assumes a more cosmopolitan identity.      
Egypt has a chance to take an international leadership role by allowing their revolution to naturally forge a new cultural dynamic.  That, in turn, can yield a greater sense of pride in a new pan-Arabic identity throughout the region.  But in order for that metamorphosis to take place, the older, more collective sense of self needs to be acknowledged rather than ignored or-even worse-intentionally suppressed in favor of a forced and ultimately false perception of Western democracy.  Allowing an inclusive Shura Council to become the medium through which those first steps can occur is a good start.