Are Egyptian democrats trying to make every mistake in the book? Assuming there could be any democrats in a country emerging from six decades of dictatorship, the answer seems to be yes.
The first mistake they made came in early 2011 when a weakened Mubarak regime was offering a negotiated deal for a mutually agreed transition. The Tahrir Square crowd rejected that out of hand, although, in hindsight, they might have dictated their terms to an ailing dictator who was looking for an honourable way out of history. Through daily demonstrations they transformed the streets into Egypt’s principal political arena. They did not realise that street politics is different from democratic politics and that if the fate of Egypt’s were to be decided in the streets they would not be able to match the organisational resources of the Islamist groups.
Once Mubarak had stepped down, Egypt’s democrats, or at least those who describe themselves as such, made their second mistake. This time they boycotted contacts with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that, in the absence of other institutions, was keeping the ship of state afloat.
The Tahrir crowd systematically scripted itself out of real politics, leaving the stage to the military and its long-time partner-cum-adversary the Muslim Brotherhood.
While the self-styled democrats sat in Zamalek coffeehouses to sulk and moan, the military and the Brotherhood wrote and performed their own script. In the parliamentary election, they managed to attract around 40 percent of the electorate. In the presidential election they seduced almost 50 percent, with the votes split between the candidate of the military and that of the Islamists in the second round.
A simple calculation would show that had the Tahrir camp fielded a credible candidate, or had they backed the candidate of the military Ahmad Shafiq, Mohamed Mursi would not be President of Egypt today.
Once the presidential election was over, as democrats they should have acknowledged Mursi as president and offered to work with him to manage the transition and shape the future. Instead, they clung to their policy of sulking and cursing from the sidelines. Worse still, they boycotted the committee charged with drafting the new constitution. Not surprisingly, that gave the Islamists a free hand to produce a long, confused and thoroughly retrograde document that is bound to create more problems for Egypt.
Demonstrations, boycotts, hunger strikes, and protest marches are effective in destabilizing a government or, in rare cases, even causing its demise. However, no democratic system could be built with such tactics. More importantly, perhaps, when there is a possibility of institutional participation, there is no need for such tactics. Egyptian democrats could have participated in the parliamentary and presidential elections. They could have filled their seats on the committee drafting a new constitution.
Even now, if they don’t like the draft submitted by Mursi and his friends, Egyptian democrats should try to fight it with something better than street riots. They could demand a dialogue with the president to negotiate amending the text. At the same time, they should tell the Egyptian people which sections of the text they oppose and why and what they propose instead. Saying “no” is easy and, perhaps, an inevitable tactic where no open space exists for political activity. In Egypt today there is such a space. Thus, those who say “no” should also be able to say what they recommend instead.
In contrast to democrats, Egypt’s Islamists have learned their lessons. They no longer claim that a Muslim nation needs no constitution because the Quran could be regarded as such. Nor do they assert that Islam is “the only solution”. They have abandoned their decades-long opposition to a Western-style republic with an elected president instead of a caliphate with a Caliph.
Islamists have also abandoned the tactics that failed to get them any closer to power. At least for the time being, they have abandoned assassinations, car bombs, suicide attacks, kidnapping and murdering foreign tourists, and the use of facial attributes and special dress codes as props of visual terror.
In other words, the Islamists have made concessions to reality. They realise that their hard-core support base is too small for imposing the kind of religious despotism they have always dreamt of. This is a major development and an opportunity that must not be wasted.
Of course, the Islamists may not be honest in their acceptance of the rules of the game. They may be wolves dressed as sheep. However, no democrat should judge his adversaries on the basis of assumed intentions.
Egyptian democrats should not boycott the process of approving a new constitution. If they do, they would be signing a blank cheque to the Islamists.
In a democratic system whoever manages to persuade a majority of the people would succeed in having his programme adopted. Thus, Egyptian democrats should unite behind a common strategy for dealing with the draft prepared by the rump council. Judging how small the hard-core Islamist base is, I believe it is possible to persuade a majority of Egyptian to reject the draft in the planned referendum. Democrats should get out of Tahrir and the cafes and go to villages, shantytowns, souks, factories, universities and offices to inform the voters about the implications of approving the proposed draft.
The only problem is a shortage of time; changing a sulk-and-retreat strategy into one of active and combative participation needs time. This is why Mursi is trying to speed things up, hoping that his opponents will continue making mistakes.