The Failure of Egyptian Politics

Editor’s note: This article was orginally published by Tahrir Squared.

Two years ago, Egyptians from all walks of life—Muslims and Christians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old—stood side-by-side and shoulder-to-shoulder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to demand an end to sixty years of dictatorship. This week, as Egyptians mark the second anniversary of the revolution, the contrast between the iconic images that defined the eighteen-day uprising and where Egypt is today could not be more stark.

Two years after launching their historic revolution, Egyptians are more divided than ever, and as the weekend’s deadly clashes have shown, violence has become the rule rather than the exception at Egyptian protests. Beneath the surface of the ever-present split between Islamists and non-Islamists that has dominated Egyptian politics for much of the last two years lie a number of other deep and growing fissures in Egyptian society along generational, class, and sectarian lines, and which occasionally erupt into open conflict and violence.

The toxic nature of Egyptian political discourse, framed increasingly in existential and zero-sum terms, continues to inspire violence by both supporters and opponents of the current government, including the violent confrontations surrounding President Morsi’s controversial decrees and the crisis over the constitution at the close of 2012. Far from consolidating Egypt’s path toward stability and democracy, the election of the country’s first civilian president last summer and the adoption of a new constitution last month have only deepened the atmosphere of polarization and mutual delegitimization that has dominated Egypt’s transition since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.

This sorry state of affairs is above all a failure of Egypt’s political class, which has repeatedly failed to place the broader public good over their own petty partisan, ideological and parochial concerns. Since the start of the transition, the vast majority of Egyptian political forces opted to negotiate with the SCAF—much as they had under Mubarak and his predecessors—rather than find ways of working together, giving the ruling military council a virtual free hand to manipulate the process and sowing the seeds of future instability. A number of proposals to form a broadly representative “presidential council” to oversee or co-manage the transition repeatedly came to naught. This dysfunctional dynamic has persisted to this very day, effectively transforming Egypt’s transition into an endless power struggle.

While much of the blame for Egypt’s botched transition rests on the country’s former military rulers, all sides are guilty of overreach and misreading of the political map. For all its electoral prowess and mastery of retail politics, the Muslim Brotherhood has been spectacularly inept at nearly every other aspect of politics. The Brotherhood’s record of broken promises, unilateralism and a deeply ingrained majoritarian mindset have burned bridges across the political landscape and earned it a reputation for rank opportunism.

That the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces also mistook their repeated electoral success for a genuine popular mandate for their highly contentious Islamist project further alienated what few political allies they still had. Faced with periodic unrest and a recalcitrant bureaucracy the Brotherhood may finally be starting to realize that there is more to politics than elections, and that its ability to govern—at all if not effectively—requires a modicum of good will and political consent. President Mohammed Morsi’s response to the current crisis—dismissing ongoing unrest as signs of a “counter-revolution” while at the same time renewing calls for “national dialogue”—is typical of the kind of dual discourse that has led so many to distrust the Brotherhood. Opposition forces meanwhile have dismissed Morsi’s call for dialogue as an empty gesture, but have consistently failed to present a viable alternative.

Despite representing sizeable constituencies, the various secular, liberal and revolutionary groups that make up the opposition camp remain highly fractious and lack both a coherent political vision and a reliable political base on the ground. In lieu of a strategy, opposition forces continue to fall back on the over-used and increasingly ineffective tactics of protest and boycott. In addition, the opposition has failed to cultivate and mobilize what should have been a natural constituency: the highly energized but politically unsavvy youth movements that spawned the Jan. 25 uprising and that have remained a vanguard for change ever since. Saturday’s announcement by the National Salvation Front (NSF), the opposition umbrella headed by Mohammed ElBaradei, that it will boycott upcoming legislative elections is emblematic of the opposition’s lack of political foresight and penchant for self-marginalization. If the Brotherhood presides over a government that cannot govern, the NSF represents the equally absurd specter of an opposition that won’t oppose.

The bankruptcy of Egypt’s political class is taking a heavy toll. In addition to crippling basic governance, Egypt’s chronic instability is steadily eroding basic law and order and battering its already shaky economy—all of which fuel the cycle of unrest. It is no wonder, then, that Egyptians are beginning to turn away from politics. Despite high levels of enthusiasm in the early stages of the transition, voter apathy has increased steadily over the past two years. Each round of voting has witnessed successively lower voter turnout, culminating in December’s constitutional referendum in which just 32% of eligible voters turned out, the lowest of any since the start of the transition.

What if anything can be done to prevent Egypt from sliding deeper into crisis? Without an all-powerful central authority with which to turn, Egyptians have no choice but to learn to deal with each other. Like it or not, Egyptians may have no choice but to engage in a genuine national dialogue aimed at reaching a broad-based consensus. Indeed, a credible process of consensus-building may be the only way to militate against the Brotherhood’s majoritarianism and the opposition’s spoilerism. Egypt’s diverse political actors do not have to love one another, only to find some way to inhabit the same social and political space. Since President Morsi has already shown he is incapable of rising above his partisan and ideological loyalties, such an initiative will have to come from outside actors, such as Al-Azhar University or other credible third parties. While consensus-building has often been dismissed by Egyptians of all political stripes as unworkable and politically naïve, the alternative—increasing instability and violence—hardly seems more workable.