The Muslim Brotherhood is within its right to consolidate power, but it is a political miscalculation that the group may regret.
Muslim Brotherhood miscalculates in its political monopoly
Since a little over a week ago, when the Islamist majority in Egypt's parliament rushed through the appointment of a constituent assembly without any serious attempt at building a broader consensus, the country's already ailing transition began to appear that much more fraught. The Muslim Brotherhood's decision on Saturday to nominate its strongman, Khairat Al Shater, as a presidential candidate delivered another shock wave that could end whatever chance Egypt had left at achieving a stable democratic transition.
It should first be noted that the Muslim Brothers are perfectly within their rights to have chosen this course of action. The constitutional declaration in place since the end of March 2011, accepted by most political forces despite some doubts about its legality, gives parliament the right to appoint the constitutional assembly.
In allying with the Salafist Nour Party, with which it controls over 70 per cent of parliament, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) could very well control the process and outcome of the nomination process for the assembly. Likewise, even if it had repeatedly stated that it would not field a presidential candidate, and even expelled members who disagreed with this decision, it has the right to change its mind according to the changing political context.
Nonetheless, the decision to abandon any pretence of inclusiveness in the appointment of the constituent assembly is a mistake - one that might be explained by the distrust that reigns between the military junta now ruling Egypt and the Brotherhood, but a mistake nonetheless.
What it shows first and foremost, as the Brotherhood stands on the threshold of the political power it has sought for over eight decades, is a contempt for other political forces at a time when Egypt is sorely in need of a consensus that can support the momentous changes ahead. The question, for now, is not so much what the Brotherhood and other Islamists intend to do about the constitution - even if they can be expected to maximise the role that Sharia will play in the new Egypt.
In fact, unlike Salafists, the Brotherhood has provided few details of what its ideal constitution would look like, and not even a clear position on contentious issues such as the implementation of traditional Islamic punishments or the treatment of non-Muslims.
The more immediate cause for concern is in the process itself. As various MPs have testified, the FJP, using its control of parliament, rushed through the appointment process, denied the opposition the opportunity to raise objections, and prepared a secret preapproved list of nominees while the rest of parliament was left with a list of nearly 3,000 names with no biographical information.
At a time when it needed to reassure and be gracious about its power, and despite repeated reassurances that it would be inclusive, it managed to alienate most of the political establishment. Not only are virtually all major non-Islamist parties boycotting the constituent assembly, but so is the Coptic Orthodox Church, Al Azhar University (the revered Sunni Muslim institution), elements of the judiciary and some professional associations.
Even if the dispute over the assembly is resolved - the FJP has offered to surrender some of its own seats, apparently recognising that it had overreached - it will have unnecessarily created bitterness in a process that should have been the first step in civilians taking control of their country after 60 years of military dominance.
Parliament had six months to form the constituent assembly, so why the rush? The answer may be that Egypt's deeply flawed political transition process is crumbling under the weight of its own contradictions. The Brotherhood had been locked in an ambiguous (because of back-channel negotiations between it and the generals in charge of the country) attempt to sack the current cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri, in part because of the widely recognised need to do so and in part because it is keen to gain direct control of the government.
At the same time, it had become more confrontational towards the military, which is desperately trying to figure out how to retain as much power as possible after a president is elected and it returns to the barracks. One reason to rush the constitution is to try to have a document ready, perhaps even before a new president is sworn in. The old constitution would give him the sole power to appoint a new cabinet and a host of other prerogatives, not to mention a voice in the constitutional debate.
What is most surprising in both the Brotherhood's stance on the constituent assembly and its decision to field its own candidate is the uncharacteristic brinkmanship. For years, the Brotherhood had favoured gradualism and a strategic approach to politics, at times confronting the Mubarak regime and at others seeking negotiation. Its more recent behaviour reveals a more maximalist attitude, precisely at a time when Egypt's other political forces, the military and regional powers are getting more nervous about it.
It remains quite possible that the Brotherhood will pull off this winner-takes-all approach, gaining the legitimacy of having been elected to both parliament and the presidency, having a constitution that reflects its beliefs, and ending up in a better position to negotiate the retreat of the generals from the civilian sphere. But it's a serious gamble.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist who blogs at www.arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist