The Spectacle Blog

Egypt Sails Into Uncharted Territory

By on 6.24.12 | 1:54PM

With all due respect to Aaron Goldstein, flat declarations that Egypt has been taken over by Islamists are (a) probably false and (b) imply a silver lining to the extent that they're true. Let's take those points in reverse order.

First, consider the argument advanced by Elliott Abrams last month at the Weekly Standard that a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Mohamed Morsi might have salutory long-term effects:

Given that the MB is the leading party in parliament, and with the Salafists has an Islamist majority there, there is something to be said for the MB having the presidency as well--and thus 100 percent of the responsibility for Egypt's fate. Their popularity has already declined since the parliamentary elections as they have engaged in "impure" political activities (for example, by running a candidate for president after pledging not to do so). It will decline more over time if, as I expect, Egyptians come to realize that the MB has no answers for the country's economic plight. I understand the argument that it won't matter, that Egyptians will be happy to live in ever-deeper poverty and chaos so long as their rulers are virtuous, but I am not persuaded.

If Egypt's "liberals" (meaning, people who believe in democracy, liberty, and the rule of law rather than Islam as the guiding principles of the state) are to have a chance in future years, the predicate must be that the electorate believes the MB had a clear chance and failed them. If Shafik wins, many Egyptians will believe the elections were stolen by the Army and the old regime's machine, and in any event power will be divided between the MB on one side and the Army and president on the other. There will be no clear lesson to learn if conditions in the country then continue to deteriorate. If Morsi wins, the MB will be in charge--and have to deliver. And when they fail, as I expect they will, it will absolutely clear whom to blame.

I am aware of the counter-arguments to this idea, for example, that the MB might use their time in power to begin a war with Israel or to eliminate all opponents. This is not persuasive either: It is obvious that war with Israel would destroy Egypt's economy when the MB needs to revive it, and eliminating all opponents would require crushing the Army--when, as the Shafik candidacy shows, the military and its allies are very much alive and appear able to fight for their interests. 

That last sentence has proved truer and truer in the past month, in ways that undermine both Abrams's argument and the counterarguments he's addressing, which brings us to point (a) above: The Brotherhood does not have unchallenged control over Egypt. The Supreme Constitutional Court has dissolved parliament and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has moved to limit the powers of the presidency that Morsi will assume. For better or for worse, the military junta is still going to have a lot of control over Egypt.

There's clearly been some sort of power-sharing deal between the SCAF and the MB, and it's an open question how that will play out. Maybe the Brotherhood will have enough influence (or perceived influence, anyway) to sustain political damage for policy failure, maybe not. But the votes appear to haven been counted fairly -- the SCAF did not deem it in their interest to steal the election -- and Egyptian Islamists are battling to impose their barbaric vision of a just society through political manuevering, not through terrorism. That seems like a good thing, for now anyway. I'll leave it to analysts more deeply versed in Egypt to guess what happens next, but even the most expert commentators, if they're honest, can only provide a range of likely scenarios, not a definitive forecast. On Egypt, as on most topics, be wary of anyone who claims to know exactly what the future looks like. 

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