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Watching the Incumbent Islamists in Egypt

by Rami G. KhouriReleased: 12 Dec 2012

BEIRUT -- Political scientists and fortune tellers -- some people think these are a single demographic group -- are having a field day analyzing the kaleidoscope of developments related to the birth of a new political governance system in Egypt. This rare occurrence is particularly volatile when populist activism in the streets is the main driving force for creating a pluralistic democracy in the wake of several generations of police- and army-led autocracy, as is the case in Egypt and most other transitioning Arab countries.

Action in Egypt now centers around the debate on whether or not to proceed Saturday with the referendum on the draft constitution. This is indeed a historic and seminal moment in Egyptian political life; it is not really the most important aspect of current events, because constitutions can be amended and changed. The much more significant aspect of what is going on is the opportunity to watch the Muslim Brotherhood in action in public, to monitor their behavior and evaluate their political competence. How such Islamists perform will impact the Arab world’s political development for decades to come.

This is truly historic and significant because of three principal factors:

• We rarely have a chance to assess the behavior of Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist politicians who are endowed with the great mantle of legitimate democratic incumbency and operate in a reasonably credible democratic system. Tunisia and Egypt are really the only two examples that meet these criteria and both of them are passing through stressful days.

• Everything in Egypt except for its stunted cuisine eventually influences similar developments across the Arab world, whether in politics, culture and the arts, security sectors or other fields. How the Islamists perform will shape the Arab region’s transitions much more profoundly than, say, developments in Turkey and Iran in recent years, where Islamists of differing shades assumed power.

• The newly dynamic, open and competitive nature of the public political sphere in Egypt has allowed a wide range of actors to take part in political activism, whether on the street, in the media, in formal institutions or in back-room planning or mediation meetings. The incumbency of the Muslim Brotherhood has been coupled with the equally decisive birth of a political system that allows for the mostly peaceful contestation of power, with the occasional lapse into momentary clashes that are politically insignificant in historical terms.

For these reasons, how President Mohammad Mursi and his bearded band of Islamist colleagues perform during this constitutional tangle is the key factor to watch. My initial assessment is that Mursi and his supporters have acted with sustained incompetence, and have caused much temporary damage to the emerging fabric of Egyptian governance and politics. But, paradoxically, their failures are also a source of strength for the system in the long run.

The Muslim Brotherhood is very good at mobilizing supporters, but so far it is proving to be very poor at wielding power in a pluralistic system. Someone should tell Mursi that calling in thugs and the army, and holding million-man marches, are signs of political weakness, not strength, in a democratic system where others can also hold million-man marches.

The Muslim Brotherhood has failed on three counts to date, and we are still counting. They proved wildly ineffective and unresponsive to the important socio-economic and political issues that mattered to Egyptians in the months after they were first elected to parliament last year, when Egyptians followed their deliberations in the televised parliamentary sessions. Consequently, when the presidential elections took place months after the parliamentary ones, the Muslim Brotherhood’s share of votes plunged from over 50 percent to around 25 percent -- a clear drop in public support and confidence. They also failed in Mursi’s cloddish power grab last month, and they failed again when they called out their thugs to beat up anti-Mursi demonstrators earlier this month.

The main negative outcome of Mursi’s behavior to date is not that he has damaged his and the Muslim Brothers’ credibility, but that he has damaged the credibility of the presidency, at precisely the moment when it needs to be safeguarded and enhanced. Not surprisingly, millions of Egyptians have rallied to oppose Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and we now have a very polarized and tense situation in the country.

Difficult as this may be for Egyptians, we should respect and applaud this process and allow it to run its course, because it is an essential and fortifying stage of passage on the road from autocracy to democracy. The confrontations to come in the weeks and months ahead will shape a new governance system that captures the populist legitimacy that remains the single most important result of the 2011 January Revolution.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global

Released: 12 December 2012
Word Count: 782

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