Bewildering as it is, we have seen serious political progress in Egypt. After much toing and froing between the Islamist majority as embodied by Mursi’s Freedom and Justice Party, and secular opposition in the National Salvation Front, Mursi dropped his controversial decree with a tacit reminder from the military that unfavourable political compromise is a great deal better than civil war. On one hand a positive intervention to avoid further bloody conflict, on the other, a quite reminder that a ruthless martial mechanism lies in waiting. This particular outcome was definitely a surprise for me at least.
There was a point in the last week, as the opposition staged a belligerent occupation of the Presidential Palace, and Mursi was required to clear them out with some convincing and several deaths, that things looked extremely bleak. Mursi offered dialogue to his detractors but was steadfastly rejected, much to the consternation of observers, and as heavy-handed as his attempts to concentrate power were, there was half a feeling that the opposition was being rather too militant and extreme in their interpretation of defending the new democratic system. An outright refusal to talk to your opponents usually smacks of an unwillingness to resolve conflict but in this case it quite possibly was a new class of democratic defenders who were so unwilling to let their nation slip back into autocracy, under any guise, that they made themselves an immovable force.
And so what was only days ago a deep scepticism concerning the present motives and intentions of National Salvation Front leaders such as Nobel Peace Laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, is now a cautious respect for having held firm. There can’t yet be wholehearted praise as the NSF opted for a controversial, if mostly admirable road, in choosing democratic principles over peace, stability and cooperation. Although Mursi didn’t take any form of conflict to the opposition with his unpopular decree, he arguably did invite it considering Egypt’s recent history.
Of particular interest here is that a Muslim Brotherhood Egypt evidently has no need of Western watchdogs. Distrust, however justified, of an Islamist agenda is in good supply already, as is the willingness to act against it. Of even greater interest is the fact that the Islamist faction, if taken as broadly represented by Mursi, is willing to capitulate or at least concede. The initial reaction to NSF outrage was the calling of a referendum on the newly drafted constitution, and after further troubles and warning there was further concession from the president. As skin deep as the opposition claim these concessions to be, they are still of huge significance as it is still compromise from a central government that is under attack from an opposition for being totalitarian.
Mursi might emerge from this in decent shape. He still wants a referendum that he is likely to win, and there is only so much stamping of feet an opposition can engage in before admitting they lost a democratic process. And is it possible that their assaults on Mursi were based more on principle than on substance? The executive decree was objectively undeniably overreaching, you simply cannot excuse legislation from judicial review, but then the unpopular judiciary was an obstinate impediment to progress with surviving links to the Mubarak era. They had already shown their hand during the summer with their dissolution of the Constituent Assembly that over 80% of Egyptians wanted in place to ratify a new constitution.
Could it be that Mursi had the best progressive intentions in his mind for the nation, but sorely miscalculated what would be acceptable in terms of achieving them? Is this the steep learning curve for a newborn governmental system that isn’t naturally drawn to genuine democratic solutions? I would hope so, but the opposition still isn’t happy and Mursi has been obliged to order military forces to support the civil police. It seems the affair has injected a sturdy dose of mistrust and it remains for the opposition not to let this muddy the forward path. From my perspective it seems that Egypt needs law and order and to become besotted with a rosy and immediate sense of liberal ideology after many decades of despotism is perhaps unrealistic.
In terms of outcomes, it would seem best that Mursi’s government compromises and remains in power, as it could only be a positive thing that Egypt’s first democratic authority was successful providing it was successful in those terms. For Mursi to come to the end of his term having wrangled enough executive power to call his government only nominally democratic would not be a success, but to assert that intention is largely speculative and probably wrong. With the military poking its head above the sand we can be reminded of what the worst outcome would be. If conflict was to continue or escalate and the military were to reimpose martial law, it would be disastrous. Comfortable juntas are by precedent exceptionally difficult to remove and Egypt’s military have already shown signs of reluctance to relinquish power in the past.