Good News, Bad News

Hussein Ibish discusses the challenges and triumphs that accompany Mohammad Morsi's presidential victory in Egypt.

Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty Images

The good news is that Egypt has just elected its first civilian president in its modern history. The bad news is that a religious fanatic has won. And both the good news and the bad news need to be taken in their broader political context, because neither are straightforward.

The good news is indeed encouraging. Egypt's Presidential Election Commission, to all appearances, played it straight, even though their four-day delay in announcing the results gave rise to an enormous amount of speculation that some kind of chicanery might be underway. In the end, they announced results that almost all observers agree are credible, although their outgoing chairman, Farouk Sultan, made the country and the world sit through an interminable and very defensive preamble.

So the Egyptian people have had their say, and it has been respected. This is, by any interpretation, a major step forward in the struggle for democracy. But the new president will inherit an office that has been stripped of many key powers by the recent supplemental constitutional articles issued by the military. The power of the Parliament has also been constrained. The generals appear to be trying to carve out a decisive role for themselves; equivalent to that once enjoyed by the Turkish military.

The good news continues. Egypt has also avoided an open, street-level confrontation that probably would have resulted had there been any effort to fix the election’s outcome in favor of former Mubarak-era Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq. So, rather than resorting to blatantly unlawful measures like vote fraud, the strategy of the military and its allies has been to work through legal and quasi-legal maneuvers to shift the de jure power structure.

So we can look forward to a protracted power struggle in Egypt over the respective authority held by elected institutions such as the presidency and the Parliament on the one hand and existing, permanent institutions (most notably the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) on the other. But for the foreseeable future it is likely to remain a political and legal fight rather than anything involving widespread unrest or violence.

So much for the good news.

The bad news is that Egypt has undeniably elected an extremist president from a radically illiberal party. Egyptians appear divided into three main camps: Islamists and other Muslim Brotherhood supporters; those who are relieved at the defeat of the candidate of the existing institutions but wary of the Brotherhood's intentions; and those who are profoundly alarmed at Mohammed Morsy's victory. But anyone who remains unconcerned about the Brotherhood’s ability to secure electoral majorities, demonstrated in both the presidential and (recently overturned) parliamentary ballots, is being woefully naïve.

It was always likely that Islamists would be the initial beneficiaries of a more open Egyptian political system. But they are now—disingenuously but somewhat successfully—positioning themselves as the “revolutionary” vanguard in a long-term struggle for democracy and popular will against “counterrevolutionary” forces in the existing establishment. This creates a dangerous conflation of their profoundly illiberal agenda with liberal imperatives for securing the authority of the people’s voice. It threatens to create a circumstance where, in attempting to secure the trappings of democracy, Egyptians might instead usher in a religiously reactionary new form of oppressive authoritarianism, enforced in the name of “the people.”

For now, the power struggle in Egypt may continue at the legal and political register, but it is possible that violent confrontation has been merely forestalled rather than entirely prevented. The battle will now focus on the drafting of Egypt's new constitution, which will formalize the emerging allocation of power. This new constitution might require a new presidential election and limit Morsy to a short term in office, at least if the military and its allies get their way.

The upcoming parliamentary reelection will also be hotly contested. Non-Islamist forces proved much stronger in the presidential election than they did a few months ago in parliamentary voting. The Brotherhood has demonstrated its street power through huge demonstrations. And the courts have carefully retained a "nuclear weapon" against it: a recent ruling that could re-illegalize the Brotherhood was postponed until September. If things go badly, they still might get extremely ugly.

If Egyptians wish to find a path to genuine democracy, which balances the right of electoral majorities to exercise power with protections for individual, minority and women's rights, they will have to find a way of curbing the authoritarian aspirations of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Right now, they find themselves squeezed between two political forces, neither of which has demonstrated any sincere respect for or appreciation of genuinely democratic processes.