The recent confrontation in Egypt between Islamist and secular parties has caused the most dangerous crisis yet in that country’s unhappy political transition. The standoff is the unavoidable consequence of a struggle for power between two political forces that have no incentive to compete in the same political arena on the basis of accepted rules of the game. One side fights through the vote and the other through the courts—and both appeal to the streets to bypass the official political process.
The confrontation increasingly is taking on the character of a Greek tragedy, with Egypt hurtling toward authoritarianism no matter which side prevails. The only question is whether it will be the tyranny of the Islamist majority or that of the secular minority. Either way, the prospects for a democratic denouement to the uprising against President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 are dim—non-existent in the short-run and questionable at best in the medium-run, with the long run too distant to hazard predictions.
In its essence, the situation in Egypt is quite simple. Islamist political parties have widespread popular support, while secular parties have influence over state institutions. Unsurprisingly, each side uses its strong suit to prevail. Islamists gained 70 percent of the seats in the parliamentary elections of early 2012 and won the battle for the presidency in June, although by a small margin. Secularists responded by demanding, and obtaining, an order that the parliament be disbanded by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled the election law unconstitutional. As a result, new elections will be held shortly after the new constitution is enacted. Secular parties may fare somewhat better this time, but nobody believes that they can win.
Competing for power with the Islamists is not a united opposition, but an array of fragmented secular parties, led by prominent personalities who are better at preaching the necessity of uniting in a broad alliance than at following their own recommendation. The politics of secular alliances has so far been a kaleidoscope, with parties combining in different formation, all ephemeral. Secular parties have little electoral support, no message with widespread appeal and no apparatus to reach deeply into the society to drum up support.
Secular strength, which is considerable, is of a different nature: their leaders are part of the old elite of the Mubarak period, which still controls the major institutions of the state, including the judiciary. This is not to say that all members of the secular opposition held positions of power under Mubarak. More broadly, however, they were part of a social stratum that thrived under the Mubarak regime. It was granted some political space as long as it did not openly defy that system, which stymied freedom but also afforded protection against rising Islamist organizations.
Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that the secular opposition should rely on state institutions—above all the courts—to undo the result of the elections it lost, filing an array of lawsuits challenging the parliamentary elections and winning some key decisions. The Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling disbanded the parliament and declared the composition of the first Constituent Assembly formed by the parliament unconstitutional. It is set to rule on the constitutionality of the second Constituent Assembly on December 2.
Even the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is the target of a lawsuit that demands it be outlawed because it is a religious party and the 1971 constitution bans religious parties. The battle in the courts has a somewhat surreal character, because the Supreme Constitutional Court is issuing judgments on the basis of the 1971 Constitution that was abrogated after Mubarak was overthrown.
President Mohammed Morsi responded on November 22 by issuing a constitutional declaration that would give all his decisions immunity from court rulings, a logical development in a battle for power that pits the authority of the courts against that of the ballot box. Islamists won elections, and the courts annulled them. Now Islamists are annulling the power of the courts. There are no good and bad guys in this battle, only politics and expediency on both sides. And Egypt will be dragged toward renewed authoritarianism no matter who prevails.
There are two wildcards in this battle that neither side controls: the street and the military. The outcome of the confrontation in the short run may well depend on them. Morsi’s decision brought crowds back to Tahrir Square to protest the edict as an attack on the “revolution.” Demonstrators have included the same mixture of secular organizations—united for a change—and youth groups that helped bring down Mubarak, but absent from the crowd are Islamists, who were an important factor in 2011. The crowds have so far been nowhere as large as those of 2011, either because of demonstration fatigue or the lack of Islamists, who have threatened to call for their own demonstrations, but have refrained from protests pending talks between President Morsi and judges. Nobody knows at this point who has the capacity to mobilize more people. But if the two sides decide to measure their strength, the danger of a violent confrontation is great.
The second wildcard is the position the military would take if such confrontation occurred. And this brings us to the second unknown factor. In 2011, the military was crucial to avoiding large-scale bloodshed. Although some 800 people died in the uprising, the toll was nothing compared to what it could have been had the army decided to intervene to protect Mubarak. After ruling the country through its Supreme Council of the Armed Forces between Mubarak’s downfall and President Morsi’s election, the military withdrew from politics last August and has not been heard since.
With a confrontation looming between secular and Islamist forces in the streets of Cairo and other cities, the military may not be able to remain on the sidelines. There are undoubtedly both Islamist and secular sympathies within the military, and their conflict could have a significant impact.
After almost two years of an uncertain and poorly managed transition, the battle for control over Egypt is now fully engaged. It will not lead to democracy. Egypt’s transition is not drawing to a close and the future promises to be messier than the past.
Marina Ottaway is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.