x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Egypt boycott rushes a process that needs time

Egypt's Islamists are fighting a small skirmish, when they need to be focused on the long political battle

Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament has, in theory, earned the right to make demands. With nearly three-quarters of the body's 498 seats now firmly under Islamist control, the mandate is clear. But in practice, Sunday's decision to boycott the People's Assembly for a week - in protest of the military government's continued grip on power - demonstrates a political brinkmanship that an Egypt in transition can ill afford.

Even the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) knows that civilian rule is inevitable - the generals are now trying to protect their sweeping economic interests and behind-the-scenes influence. This is a contest that will probably go on for decades.

For many in Egypt, and notably the Freedom and Justice Party that represents the dominant segment of the Muslim Brotherhood, change cannot come fast enough. The parliament's speaker, Saad El Katatni, said the boycott was meant "to safeguard the chamber's dignity" and find "a solution to this crisis". The promise to suspend parliament came after a night of violence in Cairo, in which one person was killed and dozens injured as demonstrators demanded an end to military rule.

In practice, the Brotherhood is positioning for long-term influence relative to the military, which makes political sense, but as a governing force, it needs some patience in dealing with the country's problems. The Islamists are far from alone in resenting the army's continued grip. But Egypt needs stability for its political transition, rather than immediate gratification. There will be plenty of time to renegotiate the military's role in Egyptian society, which it should be remembered was widely welcomed after the January revolution last year.

The presidential election begins on May 23, and Islamist-leaning candidates are among the favourites. That election, not to mention the drafting of a new constitution, is a crucial milestone before Egypt can deal with so many other issues, from the woeful economy to its new regional relations - not least to repair the recent rupture with Saudi Arabia.

Negotiating the transition will require a new level of compromise and negotiation. For their part, Islamist parties must recognise that the military will have a seat at the table, in some role or another.

Scaf's decision yesterday to reshuffle members of the cabinet to reduce tensions is a sign that the generals understand their delicate position. There are more conflicts to come, but this interim period is not the time to start a fight.