Monday’s massacre by security forces of more than fifty supporters of Mohammed Mursi, the Egyptian president who was deposed last week, is widely feared to have the potential to lead Egypt down the path of civil war. Regardless of which version of Monday’s events proves closer to the truth, this represents a critical juncture for the Egyptian Islamists to think through their political strategy towards yet another political transition, the second in two years.
With Mursi’s removal and arrest, the Islamists were given every reason to distrust democracy and, so far, the prospects for any kind of compromise look gloomy. In an understandably heated reaction on Monday, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, called for Egyptians to “rise up against those who want to steal their revolution with tanks and armored vehicles, even over the dead bodies of the people.” They reject the interim-government’s six month plan for a return to civilian government, and the offer of ministerial posts in Egypt’s transitional cabinet, as long as Mursi and many Brotherhood leaders are in jail.
Another prominent political force, the Salafist Nour Party, announced it was pulling out of the negotiations to form a new transitional government as an act of protest against the killings. This withdrawal from the political process was anticipated by their rejection of the first constitutional declaration issued by Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, which called for the dissolution of the Shura Council, the country’s Islamist-dominated legislative body. They have also declined the offer to be part of the new transitional cabinet.
Two factors, however, may eventually lead the Brotherhood and the Salafists to embrace political negotiations. First, in the case of an open confrontation with the army, more of their members would be killed and many more arrested or forced to go underground again. This would do little to advance their cause.
Second, despite the many millions that called for Mursi’s removal (14 million, according to reliable estimates), the Brotherhood might still be Egypt’s first civilian political force and the Salafists the second, as the parliamentary elections have shown. This means that although the Islamists and the Salafists now have good reasons to distrust the ballot box, they would only stand to lose if they continue to reject the political transition process and are held responsible for derailing it.
The political edge that Islamists may still enjoy, regardless of how much it shrunk during Mursi’s clumsy presidency, should not deter the army and other groups from accommodating the Brotherhood and the Salafists in the political process rather than alienating them. It is the only viable solution to salvage what is left of Egyptian democratic hopes.
Mansour’s announcement on Monday of the formation of a panel within 15 days to amend the constitution, a referendum to approve those changes, and parliamentary and presidential elections to be held early next year, is a good place to start. Despite the resistance to this plan by practically all relevant political parties and groups, the army has already warned that it will not tolerate delays on this front.
One other way of easing tensions would be an independent investigation into Monday’s events. The future release of Mursi and prominent Brotherhood leaders, such as Khairat El-Shater, the influential former deputy chairman of the Brotherhood, Saad El-Katatni, head of the FJP and former speaker of parliament, and Rashad Al-Bayoumi, one of the Brotherhood’s deputy leaders, could also be planned under certain conditions. The army could also undo the closure of Islamist-controlled private television stations and the pressure now exerted over state-owned newspapers, actions which only give credit to the argument that last week’s events are nothing but a military coup.
There is also a window of opportunity to be explored by the secularists and the National Salvation Front (NSF), an alliance of various parties formed in opposition to Mursi. The NSF includes prominent figures such as Mohammed El-Baradei, Egypt’s new vice-president and head of foreign relations, and Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League. Their challenge is to overcome the constant discord and political bickering that have characterized their actions since President Hosni Mubarak was deposed.
Now that their main objective has been achieved, the anti-Mursi camp—nothing but a circumstantial alliance—is already in the process of disintegration. The Nour Party opposed the proposal of Baradei as prime-minister, and both the party and the Tamarod (rebellion) movement rejected Mansour’s declaration on the changes to the constitution.
Some important Brotherhood members have broken ranks with the organization, e.g. Kamal Al-Helbawy, and there are divisions among the various Salafist groups, as the different reactions by Al-Nour and Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiya to Mursi’s ouster reveal.
Mursi was not in power for long, but his reign was damaging enough, politically and economically, to provide a powerful electoral argument that the last thing voters will want is Islamists unprepared to govern. Mursi’s attempts to Islamize Egyptian society through the media and the cultural scene, or by controlling what Egyptians drink, can also be a card to play—although a considerable percentage of the Egyptian population does want more Islam in politics, as indicated by a Pew poll roughly two years ago. The emphasis of the secularists should thus be on convincing the electorate of their ability, as opposed to the Islamists’ inability, to govern a country and to provide jobs, energy supply, and stability.
If the Egyptian army wants to avoid the dictatorial label, it will soon have to mull over whether or not to allow the FJP to run in the next parliamentary elections or, more unlikely, to name a new presidential candidate. If the FJP is again given the opportunity to be included in the political process, the generals will also need to consider the possibility that the Islamists might well win another election.
Yet another question remains over whether the Brotherhood will let their ideological views be shaped and moderated into a more pragmatic form by a future stint in parliament or in government. The cost of Mursi’s mistakes can force them to implicitly recognize that winning an election does not give them unconditional powers or a green light to ignore everyone else, from leftists to Salafists. Only time will tell if such recognition would not clash with their Islamist nature—that is, if they are allowed back into the political game. For Egypt’s sake, they should be part of this second transition.