Get it straight

I've been following the way the crisis Egypt is being narrated and discussed, and there are some tropes and arguments that I think need refuting. 

- The opposition won't negotiate.

All the Egypt media coverage I saw yesterday had the same headline: Egypt opposition rejects Morsi's call to dialogue. But dialogue about what? Morsi either would or wouldn't rescind his November 22 decree (he did, at the end of the day, ending an untenable situation in which he was entitled to issue legislation by decree, with no judicial review or appeal possible).

But he'd already said he would not postpone the rushed referendum and would not negotiate on the content of this very contentious constitution. So what was on the table to negotiate? Not to mention that it is hard for the opposition to accept an invitation to dialogue from someone who has just accused them on national TV of being paid saboteurs, based on false confession extorted under duress by his own cadres during extra-judicial interrogations. Morsi seems to have been bizzarrely acknowledging the fact that he is far from an honest broker when he decided to *skip* the negotiations to ensure their "neutrality."

- Morsi was democratically elected. Opposition to him is undemocratic.

Yes, Morsi was democratically elected (we think -- there were few observers and they weren't allowed to witness the final count). But being democratically elected doesn't mean everythign you do thereafter is by definition democratic. There is no overstating how seriously Morsi undermined his own legitimacy with his authoritarian decree (imagine a US president who, because the courts are politicized, decides that he will just put himself above the law). Morsi took immediate advantage of his new power by issuing a law that seems designed to increase FJP control over labour unions the day after his November 22 decree. 

- Morsi and the constitution represent the will of the majority of Egyptians. Again, opposition to him is undemocratic. 

There is no doubt that many Egyptians support Islamists and their project. But Morsi was elected with 51% of the vote (and in the first round, he got only about a quarter of the vote). A lot of people voted for him, holding their noses, to prevent a return of the old regime in the form of Ahmad Shafiq. Morsi's mandate, for some of his supporters, was to establish Sharia. But for many others, Morsi's mandate was just NOT to be Ahmad Shafiq -- not to restore the old order, not to be authoritarian, and to carry out some basic reforms. He has not delivered yet, and nearly half the country voted for his opponent.

- Which bring us to: All the Brotherhood's opponents are filul (regime remnants). 

Yes, the MB has faced resistance from former NDP figures; from the courts; from the state bureaucracy and from the media (although it is the right of the private free media to say whatever it pleases, and the MB -- which seems to have Al Jazeera's fullsome support as well its own partisan and propagandist media channels -- is hardly unable to make its voice heard). Almost anyone new in charge of the country would have to deal with some of this, by the way. 

And yes, there are certainly plenty of filul supporting the protests against the president. But as others have argued, it is ridiculous for the MB, which has cut a deal with Mubarak's army and failed to reform Mubarak's Ministry of Interior (and has started aping Mubarak-era tactics), to accuse the opposition of being a tool of the ancien regime. Both sides have their distasteful and reactionary elements (I'm thinking of some of the extremist Salafi sheikhs the MB gives top billing to at its rallies). 

- Egyptians can vote on the constitution and end this whole debate. Let the democratic process work. 

It does not seem to occurr to the Brotherhood that a referendum on a national charter is fundamentally different from a general election. You don't want to just narrowly win, or even substantially win. You want to rally the largest majoritiy possible around a shared set of principles. You want the country's future constitution to pass by the most significant margin. The result of the presidential election suggests that half the country is anti-Islamist. But even if the constitution passes with say, 70 percent of the vote, there will be a significant proportion of the population that will not be on board and will not recognize the legitimacy of the new political system -- and there will be the continued temptation, which we've already seen the Brotherhood succumb to, to resort to the same readily available arsenal of tactics to smear and repress this "minority." 

Not to mention that the rushed way in which this constitution was slapped together and in which the country is proceeding towards the referendum is a disgrace and a logistical nightmare. Shouldn't responsible leadership want to give citizens the chance to acquaint themselves with the document they are voting on? 

The Brotherhood is displaying an ineptitude and an impatience that belies its reputation as a far-thinking organization. It also is very quickly eroding its credibility among all but its core supporters and among those (often, rural poor and/or illiterate) who can be mobilized through religious and identitarian discourse. Being good at winning elections doesn't make you democratic. And facing resistance doesn't give you an excuse to be dictatorial. 



Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.