In his speech last night President Morsi rejected opposition demands for early elections, as well as the military’s ultimatum to reach a compromise that is acceptable to the Egyptian street. He insisted that he is the legitimate president of Egypt and will complete his four-year term in office. Legitimacy was the main theme of his speech, and the word was repeated many times. The president went so far as to state that he is willing to sacrifice his life to protect this legitimacy.
Does this mean that the millions demonstrating in Tahrir and other squares all around Egypt do not respect legitimacy? That is not the way they see it. They argue that legitimacy is given to a president by his people. President Morsi failed to meet Egyptians’ expectations. In the absence of a parliament that can impeach the President, the people are impeaching him directly by going to the streets. The demonstrators believe that they, and not the president, represent true legitimacy in Egypt.
Those two arguments are difficult to reconcile. It is true that President Morsi’s performance has not been stellar. Opinion polls show that about 65 percent of Egyptians feel that their standard of living has declined during the year that he has been in office. This, at least partly, explains the popular anger directed at him. On the hand, it is also true that he is the first freely elected president in Egypt’s history and forcing him out of office before he completes his term sets a bad precedent. Moreover, he is supported by the powerful and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood who is also organizing pro-Morsi street demonstrations.
First, winning 51 percent of the popular vote does not provide a sufficient mandate to change a country’s identity. Important decisions on a country’s constitution and its national identity require a broad national consensus.
The way legitimacy is defined determines how one would assess the role of the military. The Muslim Brothers consider the military’s ultimatum to the President and their possible intervention as a “coup” against legitimacy. However, the demonstrators in Tahrir Square think that it is natural for the country’s military to take the side of its people. The Brotherhood believes that it is treason for the armed forces to move against their commander in chief, while the demonstrators in Tahrir believe that it would be treason for the Egyptian army not to support the Egyptian people.
What does all of this mean for Egypt’s future? There are at least three possible scenarios: (1) President Morsi could prevail and maintain all of his powers; (2) he could be forced to accept the military ultimatum and a transitional government is set to prepare for early elections; or, (3) the president and the military stick to their positions, resulting in a protracted struggle for power.
If the first scenario materializes and President Morsi remains in power, it would be suicidal to return to the status quo ante. It is important that he draw two lessons from the current crisis. First, winning 51 percent of the popular vote does not provide a sufficient mandate to change a country’s identity. Important decisions on a country’s constitution and its national identity require a broad national consensus. Second, Egyptians are suffering greatly from poverty, corruption and poor public services. Achieving inclusive growth and social justice should be the next government’s top priority.
Dr. Morsi’s defiant speech and his apparent refusal to respond to the demonstrators’ demands do not provide much cause for optimism.
If the army takes over control of the transition, either directly or indirectly (the second scenario), they should learn from the mistakes of the military council that ruled Egypt between February 2011 and June 2012. Two lessons could be drawn from this experience. First, consensus building takes time and patience. It was a mistake to rush parliamentary and presidential elections before reaching a national consensus on a constitution. Second, good economic performance is necessary for a successful transition to democracy. Economic management should be handed over to competent individuals and the military should not interfere with their decisions.
The third scenario is the most worrisome. It would be reminiscent of Algeria in 1992. A protracted struggle between the military and the Muslim Brothers could lead to thousands of victims, a long period of instability, and economic decline. Egypt’s democratic transition would be seriously compromised.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition, and the military leadership have a historic responsibility to reach a compromise. At the presidential elections a year ago Egyptians were forced to choose between an inexperienced Islamist and a former general who was Mubarak’s last Prime Minister. They really had little choice, and the country is now paying for this. Today, the Egyptian people should not be forced to choose between an unacceptable status quo and protracted civil strife. Dr. Morsi’s defiant speech and his apparent refusal to respond to the demonstrators’ demands do not provide much cause for optimism.