x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

As Morsi takes the stage, the logic of democracy takes hold

As Egypt's old power struggle takes a new form, it would be nice if both sides had the humility to pay attention to the public's needs and expectations.

The nearly interminable announcement of victory in Egypt's presidential election tested the nation's patience last week. There was an underlying nervousness apparent on social media websites as Farouk Sultan, the chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court, rambled on in mind-numbing detail. That fear was that Mr Sultan was trying to wear everyone down, preparing the ground to announce that, in fact, General Ahmed Shafiq had won.

That, of course, proved not to be the case, as the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate Mohammed Morsi was declared Egypt's first freely elected president. The speech instead was an overwrought defence of the Court. It was also a testy rebuttal of earlier attacks delivered by the Muslim Brotherhood. And it was boring.

Contrast that to Mr Morsi's fiery speech in Tahrir Square on Friday, where he symbolically took the oath of office in front of his supporters. Although the real oath of office was performed before the Constitutional Court yesterday, Mr Morsi's political grandstanding was a reminder that Egypt's politics have entered a new age.

In hindsight, however, I believe there was also a logic to Mr Sultan's endless detail, and a lesson to be learnt. This was, after all, Egypt's first contested presidential election. And so the report of incorrect counts, faulty ballots and all the other mundane details were a reminder that, in a democracy, elections are messy affairs. American observers should know this only two well - just remember Florida's ballot recount controversy in 2000 and Ohio's voting machine malfunctions in 2004.

Egypt's contest was, by any measure, a close one. Here, too, the Court's report was a useful reminder of the deep, nationwide divisions in the electorate. One half of eligible Egyptians voted, and a little more than half of those chose Mr Morsi. And it is important to note that not all of Mr Morsi's votes came from Brotherhood supporters - many were simply voting against Mr Shafiq and the military. So too, many of those who voted for Mr Shafiq were in fact casting a vote against the Brotherhood.

Even those wary of a Muslim Brotherhood win must acknowledge that history has been made in this openly competitive contest. President Morsi will now occupy the seat once held by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak - but with a difference. If this is to work, there can be no new Pharaoh, nor will the generals be able to exercise unfettered control on their own or through a surrogate.

Mr Morsi has a mandate to govern, but he would be wise to proceed with caution. There are two essential components to making a democracy work, both involving a recognition of real divisions in society. The losing side, despite their disappointment, must accept the legitimacy of the outcome; and the winning side must accept the legitimate rights of the losing side.

These are the hard tests of democracy and real challenges lay ahead. If we look closely at this election, and indeed everything that has transpired since February 2011, we see that Egypt's democracy is a work in progress.

There are clearly two poles in the contest for power, and a third group in the making. On the one side there is the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful national movement, an effective provider of services and now a proven electoral force. On the other side is the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (Scaf) and the elements of Egyptian society it represents. The generals, too, have demonstrated that they have supporters and the capacity to organise. The revolutionary youth remain a force, but having recognised their limitations in elections they have embarked on a five-year organising plan.

In any case, the shape of Egypt's new democracy will be determined by the interplay between these groups, with no single one being able to claim it represents all Egyptians, or even all those who voted for it in the last election (democracy is a fickle mistress). All sides should approach this next stage with a degree of humility and avoid the overreach that we have seen in the recent past.

The Muslim Brotherhood set off alarm bells when it tried to exercise too much power, too soon, in parliament and in the constitutional assembly. Breaking its promise not to run a presidential candidate was seen as a step too far. One-party control can be a problem in an established democracy such as the United States; much more so in an emerging democracy.

For its part, Scaf's suspension of parliament, and its decrees that stripped many powers from the presidency and established its own role as final arbiter of the constitution, have also caused concern.

The two established poles of power in Egypt are what they have been all along: the Brotherhood and the military. Scaf will seek to maintain as much control as it can, while Mr Morsi will try to wrest it away. The interplay will determine whether Egypt moves forward.

But the real test for the new president and Scaf will be their ability to perform. Egyptians will have limited patience with this contest for power. At the end of the day, a majority of Egyptians couldn't care less about which group rules. Uppermost on their minds are jobs, improved health care, better education and a government that can deliver services without corruption. This is the real work of democracy. In this context, the election and its outcome mark not the end of a process, but the beginning.

 

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa