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Resetting Egypt’s prospects for a full revolution

by Ishac Diwan and Hedi Larbi

Whether Egypt’s first-ever democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was pushed aside by a military coup may be debatable, but it is undeniable that the June 30 protest that triggered his ouster was the largest mass movement in Egypt’s history. It was also glaring testimony to the failure of the first phase of Egypt’s revolution.

Politicians, generals and jurists could not rise above myopic concerns to build the bedrock for a new republic.

The forcible removal of an elected president should have been avoided — the liberal opposition could have eased popular anger by demanding that the government make some concessions until legislative elections, which had been set for later this year. With a good showing, they could have then compelled Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to accept the necessary compromises.

The most dangerous consequences of Morsi’s overthrow became apparent on July 8, when security forces in Cairo opened fire on some of the tens of thousands of his supporters who had turned out to call for his reinstatement, killing more than 50 people. Egyptians now fear an outcome like that in Algeria in 1992, when the military scrapped elections and sparked a bloody civil war, or in Pakistan in 1999, when Gen. Pervez Musharraf led a widely celebrated — and soon regretted — coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Egypt is at its most volatile since former President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in early 2011. But past mistakes have also taught Egyptians important lessons about what a successful transition demands.

The first transition did not manage to gather broad popular legitimacy. Instead of uniting the various political forces around an accepted set of democratic institutions, the constitutional process ended up polarizing society along identity lines, owing in large part to a faulty sequence: Unlike in Tunisia, a president with full powers was elected before a new constitution was produced.

As a result, Morsi’s incentives were to consolidate power rather than produce an inclusive constitution. Put to a referendum, the draft backed by the Brotherhood was approved by 64 percent of voters, but with a turnout of just 33 percent.

Opposition forces were also to blame; they refused to cooperate with the Brotherhood, betting that political isolation and a failing economy would end up weakening their opponents.

The second revolution highlighted the unwillingness of a large part of Egypt’s diverse population to accept this noninclusive process.

Those who took to the streets to demand a replay — largely secular, liberal, educated Egyptians — were driven not just by political and economic grievances, but also, like restive middle classes elsewhere, by aspirations for freedom and inclusiveness.

Against this background, future progress depends on three major factors.

First, Egypt needs a broadly agreed constitution and political road map. The new transition process must emphasize consensus, with “no victor, no vanquished” serving as a guiding principle. The revision of the constitution must include public debate, and the resulting text must gain the support of a supermajority in a popular referendum.

Ensuring that Islamic groups are included in the political process is a prerequisite for progress. Egypt’s Islamists traded violent militancy for moderation and participation when they started to compete in parliamentary elections under Mubarak. The recent events threaten this historic transformation. Unless Islamists are brought permanently into the political fold, political Islam will return in more violent forms in the future.

Second, the country’s new leaders will have to initiate unpopular measures aimed at revitalizing the ailing economy. This will require explaining to the population the real economic challenges facing the country.

The new government needs to convince the middle class to accept a cutback in energy subsidies, which now consume 30 percent of public expenditures, and ensure better regulation of competition and democratization of credit. It needs to protect the poor and provide them with security and broader access to state services, and to convince them that reforms will work to their advantage.

Finally, the “street” will have to keep pressure on politicians to ensure that the transition delivers a political settlement with which the main parties can live. The street has now become much more strategic.

Tamarod, the grassroots movement that led the recent protests by collecting millions of signatures on a petition demanding an early presidential election, has forced the fragmented liberal parties to become more disciplined.

While Morsi’s supporters have also shown resilience, increased support for other religious parties reflects dissatisfaction with the Brotherhood’s performance even among Islamists.

Success requires dialogue and compromise. The sequence in the road map announced by interim President Adli Mansour is a good starting point — first a constitution, then a parliament, and finally a president.

Interim Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawi, a highly regarded economist and experienced manager and diplomat, is both a respected liberal and a scion of the scholars of the Al-Azhar Mosque, the highest authority in Sunni Islam. He is ideally positioned to lead a technocratic cabinet of last resort.

Both Mansour and Beblawi can rise above short-term temptations, because they will not contest the upcoming elections. Meanwhile, the military should be chastened by its recent blunders and choose to keep a low profile.

Egypt’s democratic transition can still succeed. But progress toward inclusive, durable institutions will require Egyptians to take heed of the main mistakes of the past 2½ years.

Ishac Diwan teaches public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and is the director for Africa and the Middle East at the Center for International Development. Hedi Larbi is a former director for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank. © 2013 Project Syndicate