Befuddled

Yesterday’s giant demonstrations against Egypt’s President Morsi sent him an unequivocal message:  “leave.”  Security forces and violence were mostly absent, though my Twitterfeed suggests there was sexual violence in Tahrir.  Several Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party facilities were attacked, some with deadly consequences.  But the day went about as well as anyone could have hoped.

Now what?  Morsi shows no sign of departing.  It is not clear who would take over if he did.  The army seems unwilling.  It did a lousy job when it took over after Hosni Mubarak’s fall.  So far as I can tell, there is no vice president under the current constitution, which provides:

If the position of the President of the Republic is vacant, be it due to resignation, death, long-term disability, or any other cause, the House of Representatives declares the position vacant and notifies the National Elections Commission. The President of the House of Representatives temporarily assumes the powers belonging to the President of the Republic.

But the House of Representatives has been dissolved.  Only a rump upper house of parliament, dominated in any event by Islamists, remains.

Neither the youth who organized the Tamarod (rebellion) nor the National Salvation Front political umbrella that backed it seems to have a plan, other than the demand that Morsi leave and elections be held.  By whom? How? Under what rules?  The courts are still examining the electoral law, having postponed this spring’s planned parliamentary election.

Even if there were answers to these questions, it is hard to picture that the resignation of Egypt’s first democratically elected president in response to popular pressure would be a good path forward.  He has unquestionably failed to improve the lot of most Egyptians.  The economy is in a tailspin.  Minorities live in fear.  Security has deteriorated.  The secular and moderate Islamist opposition feels excluded.  But democracy would not last long as a governing system if it chucked out every leader who failed in his first year in office.  Even if Morsi had done everything right, good results would not likely be turning up this early.

Morsi however is not going to resign.  Even if he wanted to, the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to surrender power to street demonstrations.  Its options now are few:

  • let the demonstrations continue until they start to peter out, then use the security forces to repress them;
  • move to parliamentary elections as soon as court decisions allow;
  • fire the prime minister and start a serious dialogue with the opposition, with a view to convincing some of its stalwarts to join a new national solidarity government.

None of these options is unproblematic.  It is not clear that the security forces will be willing to do what is necessary to repress the demonstrations.  The constitutional requirements for a state of emergency cannot readily be met (Article 148). If the army intervenes, it may not be in Morsi’s favor.  The court cases are moving at their own pace and may not respond to executive pressure to move faster.  Given yesterday’s successful effort, splitting Tamarod and getting some of its people to join the government may be difficult and politically costly.

Morsi is understandably befuddled.  In his imagination, getting elected ensured legitimacy.  He expected to rule with something like Mubarak’s authority, not least because the Muslim Brotherhood in which he spent his life is a strongly hierarchical and disciplined organization.   Instead, he finds himself a weak transition figure, one expected to make a difference in peoples’ lives without the resources or the popular support required.  Unable to succeed, he is also unable to admit failure.  Unless Morsi shows a stroke of political genius he has been lacking so far, Egypt’s already chaotic revolution is headed for more uncertain waters.

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