Ramadan this year has hardly been a month of contemplation and reflection for most Egyptians. It is hard to remember in recent years a time when the situation has been more tense, more difficult, and more on edge. It seems, however, owing to international pressure, the brakes have been applied (if only momentarily) on the rising temperature – and at no point in the past month has there been a better time to impress upon all parties the sense of urgency for closing a political deal. What can that deal look like?
It is a pity, as a senior European diplomat put to me, that the resolution of this crisis ought to be considered as a “deal”. In an ideal world, the resolution of this predicament ought to be on the basis of the rule of law, with minimal need for political negotiations. This is, after all, a problem between different internal forces – not a war between two different states. But, alas, Egypt does not reside in a perfect world (what country does?). Unfortunately, the rule of law is little more than a slogan for different parties to use to increase their own partisan benefit, while assuming that their own political outlook is identical to that of Egypt as a whole.
Few, if any, are able to say they want otherwise. The military overthrew the legal, legitimate president, Mohamed Morsi, justifying it on the basis of security and the protection of the state. In its declared view, the law was unfortunately, but necessarily, suspended (along with the constitution), with a view to building a more robust democracy in the near future. Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood also engaged in illegal activity, ranging from violent actions to the disruption of the lives of millions by obstructing public transport. They also view their actions as necessary to ensure the continuation of Morsi’s presidency, which they believe will lead to a more democratic future.
Those are the main viewpoints – and it is inconceivable either side will give up on their perspective.
Nevertheless, here are the facts on the ground, beyond issues of law. The Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and the presidency, all lost popular legitimacy. Polling and research studies released by Gallup and Tahrir Trends show all that clearly: these groupings and institutions disappointed an overwhelming majority. Did the military overthrow on 3 July have a corresponding support base among Egyptians at large? That is presently inconclusive – but on the basis of tremendous public support for the military, that is quite likely. Was it legally justifiable? It is probably as justifiable, or as unjustifiable, as the intervention on 11 February 2011 that led to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. Was it popularly justifiable? The two main sides to this dispute both argue they have popular support – and all signs indicate that the supporters of the ousted president are fewer than supporters of the military.
Does that mean Morsi’s supporters ought to be ignored? No – they are a sizeable, if numerically minor, proportion of the population – and they ought to be respected with regards to legitimate demands. A political accommodation needs to be created – and if done correctly, it could be to the benefit of all.
What are the main points of a deal that has the best chance of being sustainable and to the benefit of all?
Here are six points that ought to be seriously considered:
1. The Brotherhood worries it will be outlawed and sent underground. It ought to receive assurances that it will not be, and that it will be fully recognised as an NGO, under an NGO regimen that is just and applies to all NGOs in Egypt. Naturally, that will entail commitments to transparency and the absence of weaponry of any kind.
2. The Freedom and Justice party, as a political force that has a religious reference (rather than speaking in absolutist terms in the name of God or religion) has significant support in the country – anywhere between 12% and 17% based on multiple recent polls. It should continue to exist as a political party, and be allowed to run in forthcoming parliamentary elections.
3. Those elections, and at least the next two parliamentary and presidential elections, should have a full array of international observers to ensure the confidence of the public and all parties in the democratic process.
4. This will entail the recognition of the interim government by all parties – including the FJP. The reinstatement of Morsi cannot be envisaged as a realistic possibility by anyone – and it would behove the Brotherhood to prepare its followers to recognise that as early as possible.
5. A genuine peace and reconciliation process, combined with full transitional (rather than vengeful) justice, is desperately needed. That may mean that a series of individuals be placed on trial for crimes they have been accused of for the last three years – but it may also mean that as part of a political, rather than simply legal, settlement results in pardons or symbolic sentences. This is not easy, and hasn’t been in any country that has engaged in this – but it entails far less loss of life than the alternatives.
6. There is one key state institution that is fundamentally, and existentially feared, by supporters of the Brotherhood, as well as many other non-Islamist forces in Egyptian society. That is the Ministry of the Interior – and neither Field Marshal Tantawi, nor Morsi, have engaged in efforts to deeply reform this institution. That is unsurprising, because it would require a strong consensus from political forces to actually achieve the needed reforms for the benefit of all Egyptians. A good step in that regard would be to appoint a professional human rights specialist as Minister of the Interior, with the full backing of all political forces – and preferably with full and open support of the military, which currently has the confidence of the overwhelming majority of people. The Ministry of the Interior would find it very difficult to withstand any genuine pressure coming from the Defence Ministry to reform – and it is unlikely the Ministry would reform on its own.
These points are difficult to realise – but they are vital for any truly sustainable transition to a full-fledged democracy that can stand on its own two feet for the foreseeable future. They will have their detractors – but as long as internal political forces view governance as a zero-sum game, Egypt is likely to continue in a state of unpredictable flux that can easily spiral from time to time into crisis.
Egypt is a strong country that has withstood a great deal in its recent history – but it deserves more than to simply survive. It has the right to thrive – and to realise the promise of those millions that fought for the January 25th Revolution. That promise is still alive – and friends of that revolution, inside and outside of Egypt, ought to spare no effort in giving it the best chance it can get.