Egypt’s Choice: Consitutionalism or Imbecility

An Egyptian court’s decision Monday to ban all activities in the country by the Muslim Brotherhood is the kind of foolish act that autocratic governments take when they do not know how to engage in a process of democratic pluralism and seek refuge in their mistaken sense of infallibility.

An Egyptian court’s decision Monday to ban all activities in the country by the Muslim Brotherhood is the kind of foolish act that autocratic governments take when they do not know how to engage in a process of democratic pluralism and seek refuge in their mistaken sense of infallibility. The real issue at hand is not a decision by a minor court regarding the legality of the Muslim Brotherhood’s registration last March; it is rather about the ongoing attempt by the armed forces and allied political groups to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from the public scene in Egypt.

This is foolish in every respect—in politics, culture, religion, constitutionalism—and shows the crude immaturity of the armed forces as an instrument of governance. The ongoing assault against the Muslim Brotherhood has included killings, beatings and mass arrests that have temporarily thrown the organization into disarray. Trying to eliminate it will not work, and will only send Egypt into a deeper cycle of political polarization, immobility and some violence. Egypt requires pluralism, engagement, negotiations and compromises, in order to achieve credible consensus on key issues. Banning the Brotherhood goes against all these imperatives, and will only make things worse.

Egypt is passing through a period of relativities, not absolutes, regarding both the armed forces and the Brotherhood, who are both key actors in society. The vast majority of Egyptians have repeatedly asserted that they trust the armed forces to manage a short-term transitional process that ends with the installation of a legitimate, elected government, president and parliament. The citizenry also values the security forces’ role in ensuring stability and security throughout the country. But Egyptians do not want the military to rule the country. They experienced that for 60 years from 1952 to 2011. The revolution in January 2011 was their clear rejection of that kind of system that saw Egypt become a forlorn global backwater of mediocrity and mismanagement. Egyptians do not view the military in absolute, black-and-white terms.

Similarly, Egyptians also do not view the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists in absolute terms, but rather through a much more nuanced lens of relative benefits, concerns and practical efficiencies. The Brotherhood was the leading opposition movement in the country for decades, and paid the price for its courage by having thousands of its members jailed and tortured. Its social assistance programs endeared it to millions of poor Egyptians, as did its provision of the basic succor of religious hope and faith. It was always present at the local level in neighborhoods and villages everywhere. It spoke the language of the ordinary man and woman. It was always a strong element in the basic values and the core identity of most Egyptians. It did all these things naturally and efficiently, while the old soldiers who ruled the country with an iron fist did almost none of these things.

So it was no surprise that the Brotherhood won the parliamentary and presidential elections that were held in the past two years, and they were rightly given the opportunity to run the country. They totally mismanaged their incumbency and showed that their prowess as a grassroots-based national social services and political opposition movement was matched by their incompetence and buffoonery as governors with legitimate authority. Worse than this was their inclination to be bullies in power, bulldozing a really infantile and insulting constitution through a totally non-credible ratification process that only exposed their dark penchant to grab power by any means.

The Brotherhood, like the military’s old men with guns before it, learned in turn that ordinary Egyptians viewed and judged it in relative, not absolute, terms. Egyptians liked the many things the Brotherhood offered them, but citizens wanted effective government services along with feel-good sermons and slogans. In over a year in power, the Brotherhood showed its total incompetence, which eroded its legitimacy. Consequently, tens of millions of Egyptians rallied against it in recent months, and ultimately removed it from office with the direct intervention of the armed forces.

The Brotherhood retains its core credibility in Egyptian society, given its compelling multi-media message to so many of a blend of political hope, social justice, moral self-assertion, welfare assistance, a compassionate ear, a core identity, a values-based and homegrown humanity, and a free or affordable health clinic within walking distance of home. It now faces the enormous test of how to transform all this into an operational political machine that citizens trust to run the national government, rather than just a local soup kitchen. The Brotherhood failed its first test in office, but cannot be disqualified forever from the political arena. Egypt has tried this kind of heavy-handed, one-party military rule, and it was a catastrophe. Repeating it would only add imbecility to the attributes of the Egyptian governance system that is heroically trying to reconfigure itself in a democratic and constitutional manner.

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 © 2013 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global