Michael Wahid Hanna’s latest article on Morsi’s power grab is an excellent read. The Foreign Policy piece shed’s light on Morsi’s and, more broadly, the Muslim Brotherhood’s and the Islamist Movement’s in general interpretation of democracy. However, the article romanticizes democracy as a system of governance in which political players charitably share the powers they possess for the sake of compromise –just to play nice in order to produce a sort of a lovely, warm democracy in which all loves all. I am not sure that this is how democracy works or how it came to be as we know it today.
Constitutional democracy as a form of governance is the resultant of an often ugly historical process in which political players have constantly been struggling with one another, each attempting to attain more power. And that story is still not over, but in stable Western democracies what political actors have long realized is that trumping the rules of the game dictated by the constitution can result in outcomes worse than the status quo.
The Muslim Brotherhood seems to realize the nature of the political process as one of a constant struggle for power to achieve one’s goal. In that sense, the Muslim Brotherhood understands how democracy works and seeks it in as much as it serves its interests. Specifically, they insist on the absolute majoritarian, as opposed to a liberal constitutional, interpretation of democracy, which is something I agree with Michael Wahid Hanna on in his article (with a caveat –more on that below).
Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition movement, on the other hand, views democracy as that nice system of voluntary power-sharing that I described in the opening paragraph. In every step of the way since February 12, 2011, they have acted on the belief that the MB will nicely just give up powers that they have for the “common cause” of fighting the counter-revolution. Every step of the way, the MB has failed them, for there was no common cause. Yet, there are still revolutionaries who insist that Morsi’s constitutional decree that gives him absolute powers is justified and part and parcel of that common fight. If the non-Islamist opposition can understand the reality of the political process (of which democracy is a part) and the MB’s interpretation of democracy, they may be able to resist the slow death of whatever still remains of the notion of a viable and functioning state in Egypt. That State still has some separation of powers (as weak as it was pre-Jan25), some judiciary independence (as corrupt as it was and still is) and some liberal principles in its various forms of constitutions (as imperfect as previous constitutions were). If Morsi’s decree persists, the little that we still have of a state will be sent to its final resting place, to be replaced with a totalitarian Islamist state, which has no semblance to any form of a constitutional liberal democracy.
Expounding on the above in some detail, below I share some further thoughts by way of critiquing some of Mr. Hanna’s arguments.
For example, Mr. Hanna writes:
The majoritarian mindset has so clouded the judgment of the president and his insular advisors that they were either wholly unaware of the potential backlash his edict would engender or wholly dismissive of the opposition that would articulate that rejection.
I am not sure if majoritarianism clouds Morsi’s and MB’s judgement. The way I see it, they have a grand totalitarian vision for the country. They will use whatever argument and set of actions they have at their disposal. Say that in a post Jan25 Egypt, the MB turned up to be a minority, along with other Islamist groups. In that case, instead of insisting on the majoritarian vision of democracy, they would have all of a sudden been lovers of limited constitutional democracy calling for protections of minority views, reminding us liberals (broadly defined) that that is what democracy means . It just so happens that majoritarianism is in their favor at the moment.
As opposed to engaging in constructive dialogue and coalition building with reformist forces, the Muslim Brotherhood has eschewed broad-based politics since the fall of Mubarak.
Why would they do that? Got power? Then use it and milk it as much as you possibly can, or at least don’t expect others not to use it just for the sake of social niceties. Maybe if we all nice people had power, we might have shared the power even if we didn’t want to, but I do not think the world at large does. A study of political struggle throughout history shows that for the most part, power is the driver of human actions and, as Bertrand Russell wrote, the lust of power is a part and a driver of human nature. I think that that idealism among revolutionaries and opposition parties’ rhetoric about power is what have been crippling them from being effective enough as a force on the ground.
The actions of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), which controversially dissolved the country’s democratically-elected parliament in June, have received the most attention, particularly as it stood poised to pass judgment on the reconfigured Constituent Assembly drafting a new constitution. While the move was suspect and problematic when considered within the broader context of the transition process, it was defensible based on legal precedent. More importantly, however, the move was driven by the convergence of institutional self-interest, with the SCC concerned by heavy-handed parliamentary threats to neuter the court, and justified fears of unchecked majoritarianism by the ascendant Islamist forces. This political cover is the key to understanding activist judicial behavior, and can be remedied by a broader conception of the transition process to include meaningful minority input and protections where the courts are not the sole check on executive authority.
Right on, Mr. Hanna. I have supported Jan25 and slowly realized that not all “revolutionary demands” are truly liberal. But that SCC decision was the first concrete move by any of the power players that made me switch to a more firmly anti-revolutionary activist and political parties position. I saw the members of SCC as corrupt, but my despise for them as individuals was far smaller than my fear for creating the major precedent: the violation of whatever little separation of powers we still have in Egypt. If Mursi’s decree passes and persists, that could be very well the nail in the coffin of a constitutional, limited State in Egypt. Egypt would be a completely failed state.
More broadly, this recurrent pattern raises fundamental questions about the Brotherhood’s commitment to an inclusive democratic process in which compromise and consensus are necessary ingredients.
I don’t know. I think that there is that romantic view of (functional) governance as a game of willful compromise just to “play nice”. I think compromise comes when the players understand their and their opponents’ full powers and strengths and then find the optimal action that gets them the most they can get. Compromise is not what the players seek, it is what at times this power struggle looks like it produces at the end. The more equitable the outcome, the more compromise seems to have taken place. But in reality no one compromised. They only got the best they can get. And that should explain MB’s political dominance on the scene right now and since Jan25.
As opposed to undertaking the arduous and difficult task of negotiating consensus outcomes, the Brotherhood now seems intent on eschewing the give and take of democratic politics and monopolizing political power.
Same comment as my last one. Thoughtful, considerate people, friendly to each other and like-minded give and take voluntarily with joy and mutual respect, but political opponents in governance (democratic or not) pay no heed to that. Again, I think there is too much romanticism of the “democratic process”.
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