- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
The background behind the current political crisis in Egypt is that there is a real struggle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties and secular opposition parties, says Middle East expert, Marina Ottaway. She says that the strategy of the Brotherhood is to use "the electoral arena, not necessarily because they are more democratic but because they can win elections." Meanwhile, the strategy of the secular opposition is to [use] "the courts in order to bolster their own power and to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from benefiting from the results of elections." Ottaway says that much of the current political crisis comes from "the fact that the opposition parties, the secular opposition, know that they are not going to win an election and probably know that they cannot stop the [constitutional] referendum."
In an article last week, you said that the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties and the secularist parties has become something of a Greek tragedy. Can you elaborate?
There is a real struggle for power in Egypt right now between the Islamist forces, mostly the Muslim Brotherhood, and the secular opposition, which is extremely fragmented, over who is going to inherit Egypt after former President Hosni Mubarak. The two sides are not fighting with the same weapons. The Muslim Brothers are fighting in the electoral arena, not necessarily because they are more democratic but because they can win elections. So it is to their advantage to have elections, to have a referendum and so on. The secular opposition does not have the support of a unified organization to win elections and are using the courts in order to bolster their own power and to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from benefiting from the results of elections.
How do you see this crisis unfolding? Is this going to go on for a long time?
The next step in this crisis is whether or not President Mohamed Morsi is going to be able to hold a referendum on the constitution, now scheduled for December 15. The only way in which the crisis can be resolved is if a constitution is approved, so that there is power sharing between an elected parliament, the courts and the president. Until a constitution is approved, that cannot happen and this decree that Morsi issued is going to remain in force, partly because there is nothing else. The problem now is that some judges are still threatening to boycott the elections, in the sense of refusing to supervise the referendum and presumably the elections that would follow the referendum if it is approved. So the question is whether the controversial constitution is going to be approved and whether there will be an election afterward.
Is there some compromise possible?
That remains to be seen. I am not seeing it so far. If not enough judges are willing to take part, what Morsi might try to do is to set up a new election commission that does not depend on judges. And if he is smart enough to bring in a lot of international observers to observe the election, then it is going to be more difficult for the opposition to say that he fabricated the election results—even though they will probably say that he fabricated the election results no matter what. The relationship between Islamists and secular parties at this point is so confrontational, neither side is going to accept what the other one says, but I think the presence of international observers in this particular case might really be a help to Morsi.
Until recently, Morsi had created an image for himself as a statesman in his work in helping bring an end to that Hamas-Israel conflict. Then the next day he announced this dictatorial sounding decree.
But this crisis did not start when Morsi issued the very dictatorial decree. I think the crisis was spawned when the Supreme Constitutional Court annulled the parliamentary election and disbanded the parliament that had been elected in elections that everybody had recognized as being free and fair. The court seized on the issue of the constitutionality of the election law, which was a very interesting case in and of itself because they judged the constitutionality of the election law on the basis of the 1971 constitution that had been abrogated after the overthrow of Mubarak. So it was a blatantly political decision on the part of the court, and of course Morsi responded with a tit-for-tat with an equally political decision to put himself above the reach of the court.
I’m struck by the fact that so many of the media seem to be opposed to Morsi on this, including some of the major television commentators. In fact, many independent newspapers did not publish on Tuesday in protest. Is this a sign of how divided the country is?
Yes, the country is very divided. Let me add that what we are seeing in Egypt is exactly what we saw in Turkey in the past, and it is still going on in Turkey to some extent today. Essentially Egypt has been dominated the way Turkey was by a secular elite that really represented the minority of the country. That secular elite has been in power in Egypt essentially since the British left in 1956, and that is what put the imprint on the country. And now there is a very large majority which tends towards the Muslim Brotherhood. They are people who are less educated, who are more pious, that are very conservative, and not necessarily at ease with the secular direction that the previous elite put on the country. And the two elites are struggling with each other. It’s not just a matter of who is in the government now, but really a question of which elite will prevail overall.
In Turkey after the first Islamist party was elected, not the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that has been in power now for ten years, but before that there was an election of a much more radical Islamist party and that party was disbanded by the court. The courts in Egypt, in a sense had been trying to do the same thing. They have not dared dismiss the Muslim Brotherhood, or disband the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the party the Muslim Brotherhood has created, although there are lawsuits for the party to be disbanded.
Since Morsi’s declaration of power, we haven’t heard anything from the army. Do you think the army will stay out of this or do you think they will enter into the political world?
That is the big question. One is that the army last August essentially made some deal with the Muslim Brotherhood and withdrew from an open political role. They did so for two reasons. One which is very clear is that they really got upset by what was happening in Sinai. They were losing control of Sinai to terrorist organizations, and they realized that they had taken their eyes off their primary mission, which is that of maintaining the safety and the security of the country. The other reason is that it is going to be increasingly difficult for the military to play a political role in this very divided atmosphere because probably the military is itself polarized internally.
The military is a cross section of Egyptian society after all. They have a very large number of draftees, and a lot of the draftees are undoubtedly sympathizers of the Muslim Brotherhood, if not of the Salafis. They are your average Egyptian 20- year old. And probably, there are divisions in the officer corps. We don’t know what is going on the military. I have an impression that even American intelligence agencies don’t know what’s going on in the military. So there is a real question about whether the military could intervene without splitting, and that would create an even bigger crisis in a country already in crisis.
What’s the situation with the Supreme Constitutional Court?
The court was not going to rule on the the legality of the constitution but on the legality of the constituent assembly. The Constitutional Court cannot judge on the constitutionality of the constitution. It is a new constitution. What they were supposed to rule on is the legality of the constituent assembly. That issue I think is now water under the bridge, because the constituent assembly has adopted a draft and has finished its job. The big issue now is whether or not the judges will supervise the referendum, because the constitution requires the referendum in order to be fully approved. We know that some judges have said they will.
The opposition, which has so many prominent secularists in its midst seems that it cannot get its act together.
Much of the crisis comes from the fact that the opposition parties, the secular opposition, know that they are not going to win an election and probably know that they cannot stop the referendum. The Islamists will win the referendum, if there is a referendum, the constitution is going to be approved. So what we have now is this paradoxical situation, in the name of democracy, in which the secular opposition is trying to prevent any form of voting. They don’t want the referendum and they don’t want elections because they’re going to lose them.
You’ve read the draft constitution. How would you describe it? Does it really deprive women of rights, as some people have said?
No, it proclaims the rights of all citizens. The article that was released early on concerning equality for women within the framework of Islamic values has been removed. It’s not fully supportive of freedom of the press. Human Rights Watch published a very interesting analysis, and Human Rights Watch as you know, is very, very demanding of what they expect of a constitution. While they expressed reservations, they did not say in the end that it was a disaster.
In other words, the problem with a constitution at this point is not so much the content, although certainly there are issues that could be adjusted. It’s the way it was approved, in the eyes of the secularists, and more broadly it’s going to be the political climate within which it is going to be implemented. That political climate is a very imbalanced political scene in which the Islamists hold sway, and therefore the same articles that existed in the previous constitution, for example concerning the fact that the legislation needs to conform to principles of Sharia that was also in the 1971 constitution, this time probably are going to be taken more seriously than they were before. They may have different kinds of consequences. But the constitution in itself is not the disastrous document that the secularists make it out to be.
The secular forces are condemning the draft constitution for maintaining a presidential system. They are now arguing that they should have moved to a weaker president, to more of a parliamentary system. A year ago it was the Muslim Brotherhood who wanted a parliamentary system, and it was the secular forces that argued Egypt needed a strong president. So they have reversed the position. The reason is very simple: the Muslim Brotherhood has won the presidency.
And for U.S. policy? The United States is observing right now, can it do anything?
I don’t think it can do anything. I think in terms of the domestic politics, the United States does not have any influence. It’s quite a change from the past.