Popular Legitimacy Asserts Itself in Egypt

BEIRUT - The dramatic developments in Egypt since June 30 will continue to unfold at a brisk pace and many outcomes are possible, but we can draw four main lessons from the events to date, related to the Muslim Brotherhood, the opposition, the armed forces, and the citizenry as a whole and its determination to complete the democratic transition that started in January 2011. This week’s events and what is to follow are the inevitable attempt by masses of ordinary Egyptians to transform the “popular legitimacy” that was born in January 2011 into institutions of participation and accountability in the public political realm.
President Mohammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have had a full year to do this, with both institutional political legitimacy derived from their election victories and strong popular support when they assumed full power from the armed forces in June 2012. They failed spectacularly, and so this new outpouring of populist demands and street demonstrations must now act more efficiently to move the country towards credible and legitimate institutions of governance.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has had a year to prove its ability to govern Egypt, and it has definitively failed this test. Not only has it been incompetent at governing and providing for the basic needs of citizens, but it has also proved unwilling or unable to engage the full spectrum of Egyptian society in a democratic manner. Conditions for ordinary Egyptians are much worse today than they were a year ago, especially in terms of jobs, income, and availability of gasoline, diesel, and electricity. At both levels of policy and politics, the Brotherhood’s incompetence has weakened it as a public political force, which will hurt fellow Islamists around the region. It will continue to be a major factor in the personal lives and local community dynamics of millions of Egyptians, but will have to regroup now and reconfigure itself to be able to play a continuing role in public politics.
The armed forces in Egypt will continue to play the role of the guarantor of national integrity and stability, to the approval of the majority of citizens who trust the armed forces but do not want them to govern directly, other than for short transitional periods. The iconic moment of the continuing events was certainly when army helicopters carrying large Egyptian flags flew over Tahrir Square on Monday, to the joys of approval from the demonstrators below. The armed forces are the only strong, stable, and trusted institution in the country and they are willing and able to step in and play their role as guardians of Egyptian national integrity -- but this role also has now been clearly demarcated by the events of the past 30 months as one that supports the emergence of an elected, legitimate civilian government, not one that replaces this with military rule.
The traditional, non-Islamist opposition forces have been as incompetent as President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been amateurish at organizing sufficiently to challenge or check the Muslim Brotherhood-led government, or to harness the massive popular disappointment with Morsi’s performance to improve economic and security conditions for ordinary Egyptians. The failed opposition clearly must be replaced by a more effective opposition coalition led by new faces and institutions. The ability of the Tamarrud (Rebellion) group to tap into that mass discontent and channel it into the June 30 protests is an indicator of the new political dynamics and institutions that must come to life in Egypt to be able finally to achieve the full promise of the January 2011 revolution.
All Egyptians collectively have failed during the last 30 months to establish institutions of governance that are both legitimate and efficacious, and this new round of street activism will see them embarking on a second chance to do this. The critical goal is to translate the mass emotions and determination that Egyptians have now reasserted into workable institutions of governance that comprise pluralism, participation, and accountability.
Two years ago, Egypt was in a situation where five major forces -- the armed forces, the Muslim Brotherhood-led Islamists, the judiciary, the non-Islamist opposition and the citizenry symbolized by Tahrir Square -- engaged each other to hammer out a new constitution and reconfigure the governance system more democratically. Today, the armed forces, the Islamists and the street citizenry are the three dominant actors who will continue this battle to create a new and better Egypt, while the others will regroup and recalibrate their ability to engage in political life.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters will fight back and try to retain their grip on power. Their argument that Morsi is a legitimately elected president is a significant one, but so is the opposition’s view that in his full year in office he has utterly failed every significant test of democratic legitimacy and efficacy, and must step down and allow a new president to be elected. That contest will now be determined largely in the streets and among the leadership of the armed forces. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global