What is it that the Brotherhood really misses?

Amr Adly , Saturday 21 Jul 2012

History in Egypt appears to be repeating itself, but with different players. Not 1952, but the 1920s, where Al-Wafd was outmanoeuvred, despite its democratic successes, by the monarchy and the British army

Almost a week after being sworn in, the newly-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, issued a decree reconvening the recently dissolved parliament. The decree led to a sharp crisis with the judiciary, especially the High Constitutional Court (HCC), and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Morsi had to back down the moment the crisis intensified and the HCC annulled his earlier decree. It seems that the newly-elected president has lost his first legally-coated political battle against Egypt’s unelected elites.

Many observers have stated that the HCC verdict that dissolved Egypt’s first freely-elected parliament is ungrounded, both politically or legally. They claim that even though the elections law may be indeed unconstitutional, the timing of the verdict is highly problematic and clearly politicised. Moreover, some believe that the verdict is an alarming precedent as for the first time a court ruling could disband a popularly-elected body. Such a precedent may inaugurate in Egypt limited democracy under the custodianship of the military and the judiciary.

Fears have been compounded further by the looming prospect of SCAF forming a Constituent Assembly in the case the current assembly is dissolved by court order. If this scenario materialises, Egypt would end up with a political system similar to that of Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s, or to Pakistan. Under such a system, a relatively-open and competitive political regime becomes subject to the constant monitoring and corrective actions undertaken by unelected elites — ie the judiciary and the military. Will Egypt be bound to such a fate?

In fact, such censored democratic systems are not altogether alien to Egypt’s modern history. After all, what is called Egypt’s liberal age (1923-1952) was not that liberal or democratic. It was rather a typical case of censored-democracy. A relatively free and competitive political arena would always enable Al-Wafd to win a majority in parliament and to form a government. Nevertheless, Al-Wafd’s total tenure in power was less than seven years in a span of almost 30 years because the 1923 constitution enabled the monarch to exercise actual power against the elected majority. The monarch had the right to disband parliament and dismiss the government while appointing another from the ranks of minority parties. Such interventions would not have been possible if it hadn’t been for the actual presence of the British occupying troops that had the ultimate control on the ground through sheer — albeit illegitimate — force.

Ironically, Egypt’s first ever freely and fairly elected parliament of 1924 was dissolved by a royal decree. The parliament was the result of the first universal elections held in Egypt under the 1923 constitution. Al-Wafd, under the leadership of Saad Zaghloul, secured 90 per cent of the seats followed by the Liberal Constitutionalists with only 10 per cent. Zaghloul formed the cabinet and became Egypt’s first elected premier and thus the theoretical wielder of executive power, according to the constitution, where the king was supposed to own but not to rule.

However, a few months later Al-Wafd went through a crushing political crisis that ended up with the ouster of Zaghloul and the disbanding of parliament. In November 1924, the British head of the Egyptian army in the Sudan was assassinated in Cairo. The incident availed the Britons with the valuable opportunity to use their actual control over the country and to force Zaghloul to resign. Al-Wafd was severely weakened by the confrontation with the British. King Fouad took advantage of the crisis and issued a royal decree dissolving parliament. The decree was deemed unconstitutional by the Wafdist majority. However, the king relied on opposing interpretations of his constitutional mandate. Meanwhile, the king’s loyal troops physically occupied parliament and barred MPs from entering. Does that resonate by any means with the country’s current impasse?

Indeed in does. The scene is set for the reproduction of censored or controlled democracy as in the 1920s but with different actors. The Muslim Brotherhood’s majority in parliament looks like that of Al-Wafd even though much smaller (42 per cent versus 90 per cent). Morsi is the head of the executive exactly like the first democratically-elected premier. The judiciary replaces the king in the current context. The High Constitutional Court has the legal mandate — albeit contested by its political rivals — to disband parliament and annul Morsi’s decisions (together with the Administrative Court). SCAF is the entity which is in direct and actual control of the country even though it has no legal or lawful status. This is like the Brits of the 1920s. Yet, it is not an occupying force. Rather, the public — or a significant part of it — values it as a patriotic and trustworthy institution that enables it to play a political role.

In fact, the Brotherhood does not have the legitimacy that Al-Wafd enjoyed in the 1920s and 1930s. Al-Wafd was the sole representative of the middle classes and the peasantry. It was the champion of Egypt’s national cause at the time that revolved around the constitution and independence. It could secure 90 per cent of the seats of the first parliament. The only rivals of Al-Wafd were a thin stratum of large landowners who had no popularity besides foreign communities that fell under the protection of British occupation. Conversely, the Brotherhood barely gets the support of half the electorate. The presidential elections have shown that at least half of the electorate is quite sceptical if not antagonistic to the Muslim Brothers. The Brothers do not seem to be doing enough to bridge the gap with influential groups within the revolutionary camp. Identity-based polarisation makes of many seculars and Copts natural allies with the military. Moreover, the state bureaucracy is quite concerned with the Brotherhood takeover of the state apparatus in the name of reform or combating corruption. Simply put, the Brotherhood does not possess enough legitimacy to engage in lengthy struggles against SCAF and its allies in the name of democracy. It seems to be in a much weaker position than Al-Wafd of old.

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