The tumultuous road to a stable democratic system of government in Egypt is passing through one of its most decisive stages these days, with most of the main political actors revealing their amateurism more than anything else. This is a hard but necessary learning process, as the main protagonists refuse to accept that hard-line and absolutist positions are inappropriate during this delicate transition.
For all the heartening talk about their shared commitment to democratic pluralism, the dominant Muslim Brotherhood and most of the other leading Egyptian political groups are demonstrating the problems arising from a fast transition from autocracy to democracy, without a transition period in which people and organizations learn how to function in a democratic system. Personality has much to do with this.
The Muslim Brotherhood leaders who have spent much of the last 25 years in and out of jail were catapulted into the presidency without any previous experience in managing national politics. President Mohammad Mursi is revealing his inability to act as the president of all Egyptians and the shepherd of a historic constitutional transition in which basic governance institutions are being built. Unlike Nelson Mandela who spent decades in jail and then showed his compassion, flexibility and statesmanship when he became president of South Africa, Mursi seems focused on pushing through his agenda (presumably also the Brotherhood’s) and is unable at this stage to act as the magnanimous leader of all Egyptians.
He has made five main mistakes so far: unilaterally issuing the constitutional decree in November that shielded him from all judicial oversight; being two days late in addressing the nation after mass demonstrations turned into clashes around his presidential compound; refusing to make any meaningful gestures to the significant opposition that has been expressed to his constitutional moves; ramming through the referendum on the draft constitution in two weeks; and not working with his colleagues to tone down the response of Muslim Brotherhood supporters to the anti-Mursi demonstrations.
These would be natural actions for a political party leader or partisan politician, but coming from a newly elected and democratically legitimate president of a country in the early stages of a delicate transition, these were irresponsible, petty and dangerous acts. His speech to the nation Thursday night was a sad display of his inability to make the kinds of gestures and concessions critical in such a situation of heightened anger. His call for dialogue and saying that he was open to discussing and amending some of the disputed items in his unilateral decree puts him nowhere near where he needs to be to elicit a positive response from the opposition forces that refuse to speak to him until he rescinds his decree.
There is an obvious middle ground here where Mursi could have “frozen” his decree, extended the time period in which Egyptians could debate the draft Constitution, and engaged the opposition in serious discussions on how to achieve the goal he says is his main concern: finalizing the ratification of a new Constitution and completing the process of building the new governance system, with elected houses of Parliament alongside the presidency and the judiciary. His goal is reasonable and important, but his manner of going about achieving it is amateurish and brutish.
The opposition is equally disappointing, given their instant, absolutist demand that Mursi annul his decree and delay and referendum beyond its schedule Dec. 15 date. The nonviolent public demonstrations the opposition has launched are perfectly acceptable means of protest, but they represent a segment of Egypt’s population that is probably a minority.
The opposition needs to be much more sophisticated and realistic in mobilizing its supporters and engaging the president in a manner that makes it possible for him to respond meaningfully. By taking hard-line positions, including simplistic boycotts, they pushed themselves and the president into a corner, making it inevitable that demonstrators on both sides would end up clashing in the streets.
The process of developing a Constitution is unlike any other political activity, because it requires a genuine national consensus, rather than the partisan majority that is enough to pass legislation or take other government action. Mursi has not been able to grasp this point, even though he tries to echo it in his rhetoric. Should he wish to summon the capacity to act magnanimously and wisely, he could easily be seen by future historians as the father of a new democratic country, and the beacon for democratic transitions to come across the Arab world.
One way that amateurs become masters of their craft is through experience, which Mursi does not have in the governance arena. Another way is the sheer human will to rise above narrow sectarian and ideological tunnels and lead all Egyptians on their epic national journey. So far, the president has shown no signs of this latter course, which is damaging him personally, the Muslim Brotherhood, and all of Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood’s journey directly from jail to the presidency is proving difficult for Mursi, and other Egyptians are not helping him very much either.
Egypt will emerge from this stronger and wiser, but there will be blood and damage on the way.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.