Egypt: Where political wisdom is a far cry
The recent unfolding of bloody violent events in Egypt is more than shocking for people who appreciated Arab Spring. So far, hundreds of protesters have been killed and thousands more injured. There is no sign of restraint. Instead, the defiance of confronting parties, the continuing acts of violence, and unwillingness to compromise could mire Egypt in a deep, prolonged crisis. The recent upheaval in Egypt, however, is not a one-off event, rather a consequence of a series of politically immature actions from both sides.
Mohammad Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood veteran, was surely not the best of choices for the Egyptian people. But he was definitely voted to power, albeit marginally. Following its electoral triumph, Muslim Brotherhood nonetheless left no stone unturned to repeat all the mistakes that most new democracies make. There are certainly structural deficiencies of the state and inability of political parties to fully realise democratic potentials. Adequate actions from parties were also absent to fulfill the minimum conditions of a new democracy and pave the way for its consolidation.
As the ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood completely ignored the fact that they were bestowed power in a society that is vertically divided. The tensions between liberals and Islamists in Egyptian society surrounding identity issues are significant. Mohammad Morsi also overestimated his stretch of power and the sources of his strength, and disregarded the dangers lurking ahead. Both Morsi and his party ironically failed to apprehend the gravity of divisive politics within the society and never attempted to reach out to the liberal opposition, let alone address their concerns.
The series of failures of the Muslim Brotherhood government in the economic and political fronts, which many opportunists also call a failure of political Islam, had certainly created a political impasse in Egypt for months and needed to be dealt with wisely. Unfortunately this was not the case.
On the one hand, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood wrongly interpreted their democratic mandate believing that they were voted to do anything they wished, including carrying forward their controversial Islamic agenda even if that unsettled the balance of power within the society and irked half of the population. Their perception of democracy only manifests the minimalist conception of democracy that champions nothing but an election (many a times flawed). They also miserably failed to manage the country and provide citizens with basics. Although Morsi stayed in power merely a year, the liberals became furious at his party's Islamic agenda, especially when it unilaterally orchestrated the new constitution.
On the other hand, the liberals also displayed political immaturity, became impatient too early, and failed to adhere to the basic rules of the game of democracy (albeit minimal) that an elected government should only be removed from office through another election. Their romanticism about military being the vanguard of democracy and their apparent success in forcefully ousting Islamists from power may dry up soon and could well backfire. More strikingly, it sets a dangerous precedent for any future democratic regime in Egypt, even if they are liberals, that their luck could hinge on the military's mercy.
The developing events following Morsi's ouster are painful. It was certainly a coup d'état, no matter how much the military tries to give it a civilian disguise. From the Muslim Brotherhood's perspective, it was very hard to swallow. Accepting the humiliation and calling for strategic retreat needed the highest level of political wisdom that Muslim Brotherhood leaders failed to demonstrate. While it was frustrating to see a legitimate government being deposed illegitimately, devising the right strategy in such a complex political setting would mean that Muslim Brotherhood accept the change for the time being by limiting their protests to Morsi's early release, and then join the 'return-to-democracy' movement to stay in mainstream politics.
That kind of political wisdom was desirable given the fact that military has intervened in politics involuntarily in response to millions of Egyptians who took to the street, occupied the centre of the capital for days, and called on them to intervene. The military has taken a side only when the options were very limited.
Now fighting with the military, backed by at least half of the population, would amount to madness and the worst kind of political maneuvering. Ironically and apparently, Muslim Brotherhood has chosen that bloody path that will only shed blood of hundreds, if not thousands. That path could dangerously escalate the violent situation and lead to an armed civil conflict -- neither bodes well for Egyptian people and society.
At the same time, the wishful thinking is that the liberals should be able to contain any hidden agenda of the military, pressurise it not to use excessive force against pro-Morsi protesters, and try to reach out to the Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters to persuade them that they are a part of the political process and of the future Egypt. But for that, too, the Islamists have to promise that they accept the dynamics and liberal nature of Egyptian society.
The Egyptian episode of transitional democratic crisis has stirred some basic debates in the democratic world. The Western countries, who have long advocated for democracy, have been facing a real test here. They have so far failed to label the Egyptian event a coup d'état, let alone condemn it. More pertinently, they showed sheer indifference in effectively criticising the excessive use of force by the military against the angry pro-Morsi protesters and for indiscriminately shooting and killing them.
The way the military handled the pro-Morsi protests -- with live ammunition -- should have drawn stern criticism from all sides. Unfortunately, the Western countries fell well short of harshly criticising the brutal crackdown. When the death toll is mounting every day, we are not hearing words of condemnation from the 'free world' -- the champion of advocating democratic tolerance, right to protest, etc. This double-standard will frustrate the Islamists across the region, who have democratic aspirations, and could drive them to resort to more violent means to pursue their goals.
The differentiation of events in Egypt and Syria with regard to treatment of protesters could leave the entire Arab democratisation effort in peril. Islamists could feel very much victimised and isolated. Their mistrust of the West -- that its democratic agenda does not include Islamists -- would also be substantiated. Already, Syrian Islamist rebels fighting against the regime have criticised the West for its double-standard in Egypt and vowed to fight for establishing a 'Sharia' regime forcefully (not democratically).
The situation in Egypt is very testing for everyone involved in the crisis and could also be inadvertently exposing. Therefore, it requires restrained and cautious moves from all sides. Egypt may become quiet today or tomorrow, but the actions and reactions -- from local and global stakeholders -- at this critical moment of history may leave a reprehensible and regrettable precedent for the future.
The writer is a political analyst and researcher, currently working with the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University.
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