How Egypt’s Liberals Can Defeat Mohammad Morsi

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 4 2012 1:48 PM

Will Egypt’s Liberals Ever Win?

They can, but they must forget Shariah and focus on painting Egypt’s Islamist president as just another Mubarak.

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But while none of this is a recipe for a liberal, modern society, neither is it particularly offensive to most Egyptians. For example, in a nationally-representative survey conducted by one of the authors in November 2011, 67 percent of the more than 1,500 Egyptians polled disapproved of the idea of having a female president (with 30 percent believing women were unsuited for any public position); 80 percent believed the Egyptian government should set up a council of religious scholars to ensure that law conforms to the Shariah; and 75 percent approved of the idea that religious authorities should be allowed to censor the media. Of course, these kinds of mass opinion surveys are inherently limited—sometimes people lie about what they want. But they suggest that if liberal activists focus on making the case that the Muslim Brotherhood’s new constitution is too Islamic or conservative, they will lose.

Instead, liberals need to focus on what has worked for them in the past—organizing to oppose unchecked power. It was Mubarak’s steady, ceaseless centralization of authority that brought out the crowds nearly two years ago, and Morsi’s recent power grab has the potential to do the same. After all, there is something deeply reminiscent of the old regime and the way it did business in Morsi’s declaration that his decisions are "final and binding and cannot be appealed by any way or to any entity," and his arrogating to himself the power to "take the necessary actions and measures to protect the country and the goals of the revolution."

Similarly, the new constitution contains within it all sorts of authoritarian provisions, allowing the country’s liberal forces to counter the president without exposing themselves to the charge that they want a Godless, hedonistic Egypt. For example, the new charter limits the rights of workers to organize. Egyptian workers have struggled in recent years to establish genuinely independent labor unions, and they were a driving force in the movement that brought down Mubarak. One would have expected, then, that the new constitution would reflect their aspirations. Instead, it restricts the formation of trade unions “to only one per profession,” and contains lukewarm language on the right to strike, saying only that worker actions will be regulated by the law (opening up the possibility of restrictions). On Nov. 24, the president issued a law increasing the government’s control over the country’s largest trade union, further suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Egypt will not be friendly to organized labor. 

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Morsi and his fellow Islamists can also be challenged on the way their new constitution continues the decades-old Egyptian tradition of cosseting the military. This represents a flip-flop of sorts for the Brotherhood, which in November 2011 held large rallies in Tahrir to protest a set of constitutional principles proposed by the country’s generals to preserve military independence from civilian authority, among other things. One of the provisions the military wanted to include prohibited parliament from discussing the military’s budget. Though Brotherhood members had condemned the generals’ move as leading to “militarization of the state,” the new constitution includes similar language, giving oversight of the military not to parliament, but to a 15-member National Defense Council, a majority of which is made up of generals.

More damningly, though the Brotherhood had long declared itself opposed to the odious practice of hauling civilians before military tribunals, the new constitution contains a provision allowing just that: Article 198 declares that civilians can be tried by military courts for crimes that “harm” the armed forces. It is difficult to see how this constitution could prevent the Mubarak-style abuses, such as the trial of Ahmed Mustafa, a 20-year-old who was detained in March 2010 for writing about nepotism in the armed forces, or the November 2010 case of Ahmed Bassiouni, whom a military court sentenced to six months in jail for Facebook posts on military recruitment procedures. Of course, many Egyptians respect the military and may find these provisions acceptable. However, Egyptian liberals can, at the very least, use these U-turns to charge the president and the Brotherhood with the hypocrisy one usually associates with the old regime.

None of this will be easy. Though the liberals have demonstrated that they can bring out a crowd—perhaps forever putting to rest the Brotherhood’s conceit that only Islamists can organize the million-man marches that have become a fixture of post-Mubarak politics—the next phase of the game will require more than spectacular rallies. The liberals need to figure out what to say about the constitution to the millions of Egyptians who don’t necessarily share their fine liberal sensibilities, and then they have to make sure that they say it often and loudly enough to get voters to reject it at the polls. And they must do all of this in less than two weeks. 

If you’ve followed the twists and turns in Egypt’s 20-month democratic odyssey—particularly the way the country’s liberals have been repeatedly outplayed by Islamists—you could be forgiven for being pessimistic about the liberals’ prospects of pulling this off. But the newfound energy in the hitherto moribund liberal camp, and the show of unity between perennially divided leaders like ElBaradei, Moussa, and Sabahi, may be evidence that the non-Islamists are finally making their way up the political learning curve. Whether they’ve learned enough to beat the Muslim Brotherhood is an open question. But one thing is clear: It’s exam time.

Tarek Masoud is an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Wael Nawara is a co-founder of the Dustour (Constitution) Party of Egypt and a former fellow of Harvard’s Institute of Politics.