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A Learning Process in Egypt (is desperately needed)


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Photo taken from USC website via Creative Commons

On the afternoon of July 3rd, I caught the Al Jazeera English reports very soon after they came out that Egypt’s president Morsi had been overthrown. I immediately began streaming their video feed and searching news sites for detailed political commentary. It was only about a week ago that several colleagues and I submitted a proposal to work in Egypt to develop the capacity of youth organisations to more effectively think in strategic and political terms. So I found myself glued to the updates, realising that our work is both greatly needed and in graver danger than ever.

Let me organise my thoughts in three areas:

1. Why this latest action was taken

2. The overthrow itself and to what extent it might be considered “democratic.”

3 What processes are now needed to ensure that the next electoral victories will endure

Why was Morsi overthrown?

From almost all accounts (except from his own supporters), President Morsi had bungled this presidency: the economy has been spiraling steadily downward, institutional power grabs called into question his commitment to democracy, and most egregious in the minds of the Egyptian population, he has categorically ignored voices contrary to the Islamist position. This last pattern of behaviour on the part of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood party proved fatal for the presidency.

The Brotherhood’s political success in the last election is a clear indicator of their ability to think politically and strategically, and to motivate their base for electoral gains. These are skills not deftly held by opposition parties in Egypt. But unfortunately for the Brotherhood, decades of paranoia and repression have led them to act fearfully and without regard for opposing opinions. So while they are adept at political organising, they actually lack the desire to share power and the ability to engage leadership in a pluralistic manner.

Looking at the popular events, culminating in the demonstrations of June 30th and beyond (in particular starting on June 30th), we can clearly see growing public sentiment against Morsi’s administration, and increasingly ineffective (or incompetent) attempts by Morsi himself to respond to their demands. The military’s ultimatum for Morsi to respond to the political crisis passed, and out he went. The international response has been mostly muted, with the notable exceptions of a few Gulf and Arab states. Most other countries have commented with a version of “We are concerned at the instability and possibility of violence, but we hope Egypt holds elections and returns to political stability as soon as possible.”

Was this a democratic action?

In Samer Shehata’s OpEd for the NY Times, he outlines the differences between liberalism and democracy in Egypt: essentially that those democratically elected do not hold the liberal perspective that all minority voices are necessary and that those in opposition to Morsi’s government believe in minority rights and personal freedom, but cannot bear to see Islamists in power. Each groups lacks a key skill needed for effective governance. The Muslim brotherhood won’t include minority voices. And the opposition, due to its lack of political power and organising ability, could only hope for the military to step in and push forward its agenda.

This is one reason foreign governments are debating on whether to call this a military coup: can it be called such when it represents the will of a large portion of the population? I believe it can, and will likely always be followed with an asterisk describing the events surrounding it. The people believe they moved, and the army followed their will. To what extent this is true, we have yet to see.

Unfortunately, however broadly you define it, this cannot be considered strictly democratic. Did it reflect the voice of the people? For some, sure. Was it celebrated both within and outside of Egypt? Along with mixed responses, yes. Was the political situation in deep danger of collapse? Very clearly.

Did anyone vote on these actions? No. Were constitutional processes upheld? No. Were all voices sufficiently and thoroughly considered? No.

What is now needed?

It is unclear how the Muslim Brotherhood will react to these events. Again, it is not political savvy that this group lacks, or strategic thinking. It is simply that they are too narrowly focused on preserving their agenda (so long repressed), resulting in the denial of minority rights. This is the major issue on which they must work (so long as they are given the freedom to) .

Will they, as some hope, be reflective enough to recognise their mistakes, adapt their political strategy, and more subtly engage in future political process? It is unlikely that this will happen in the short term, particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood manages to again acquire a majority of political power in the next election. On the contrary, it will be this defeat and the absence of political power that might trigger reflective conversations about a moderate Islamist agenda that is capable of honoring and including minority voices and rights. The question is whether the institutions are in place to encourage such conversations, or as in other contexts (and in Egypt’s own history), will the Muslim Brotherhood be driven underground again?

Many believe that the recent appointment of Mohamed ElBaradei as interim prime minister could prove to unify the opposition. Yet in order to so he has to engage the opposition in the political system through constructive dialogue.

Furthermore, for the opposition groups to become a politically viable force under ElBaradei’s premiership, three major objectives have to be addressed: