Indeed, it sometimes seems that Brotherhood and Salafi representatives viewed the very presence of "liberals" on the assembly as a gesture of goodwill and magnanimity. The Brotherhood's disdain for liberals is nothing new and is, at least in part, a product of the Mubarak years, when many liberals tolerated the Mubarak regime as the lesser of two evils. But it runs deeper than that: Islamists generally don't see liberals as having any natural constituency in Egypt. Moreover, they represent an ideology that is foreign to Egypt and, worse, morally subversive. To the extent that Egyptians ever support "liberals," it's only because they don't want to vote for the Brotherhood, not because they're liberal or even know what "liberalism" means. In my interviews with Brotherhood leaders both before and after the revolution, I usually got the sense that, despite occasionally trying, they simply couldn't bring themselves to take liberals seriously. They were almost always more concerned about those on their right flank, the Salafis.
Lack of respect aside, when you look at what each side says they believe, there seems to be room for consensus. After all, the major liberal parties say they support a role for sharia in public life (Egypt's most "liberal" party has been known to campaign with banners saying "The Quran is Our Constitution"), while the Muslim Brotherhood says all the right things, calling for a "civil state." Even the Nour Party, the political arm of the largest Salafi organization, says that "the state should be far from the theocratic model."
But these groups are acting more moderate than they actually are. Liberals are trying to be more responsive to the popular mood, which is both conservative and religious. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood and Salafis are eager to portray themselves as "responsible" actors, particularly in the eyes of Western governments, whose support is necessary for Egypt's economic recovery. But such ostensibly conciliatory gestures have also led each group to believe that the others are acting insincerely. It is understandable that liberals, being the weaker party, fear that the Brotherhood will use its increasing powers to undermine and exclude them. But the Brotherhood, too, fears its opponents are out to destroy it, using any tools at their disposal to reverse the group's electoral victories.
As Brookings Institution scholar Khaled Elgindy astutely observed, "a persecution complex is the backbone of authoritarianism." He may be right, but that doesn't make the Brotherhood's persecution complex any less real. The memory of 1954 looms large, when President Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Brotherhood, rounded up its members en masse, and executed many of its leaders. More recently, the Algerian tragedy of 1991 -- where the staunchly secular military aborted an election Islamists were poised to win, plunging the country into civil war -- remains a defining moment in the Islamist narrative.
For the Muslim Brotherhood, another Algeria is always around the corner. Winning one election after another is no guarantee of political survival, just like it wasn't in 1991. For the Brotherhood, the dissolution of parliament last June offered yet more evidence that the liberal opposition and international community would not stand up for democracy when it was Islamists who suffered.
These betrayals -- and each side has their own long list -- are now etched in memory, making reasoned dialogue a challenging task. To be sure, the mistrust is amplified by a terribly mismanaged transition, but it also draws from something real and deep, if often unstated. Behind all the accusations and the seemingly minor procedural objections lies something more basic: Egyptians simply may not agree on the fundamental attributes of the modern nation state. Should the state be ideologically neutral, or should it be an enforcer of morality, intent on creating virtuous families and virtuous individuals? Egyptians, and most of the Arab world for that matter, haven't really had this conversation until now.
In the short term, there can and will be at least some consensus. The Brotherhood is constrained not only by an increasingly vocal opposition, but also by external actors. The economy is teetering on the brink and stabilization will only come through the economic support of the United States and Europe. There is only so far Morsi and the Brotherhood can go -- for now. Their focus is on stability, security, and the economy, not on applying Islamic law or creating the mythical Islamic state.
That said, Islamists are Islamists for a reason. They have a distinct ideological project, even if they themselves struggle to articulate what it actually entails. The Brotherhood has already been developing something called the "Nahda Project," a sort of dream for Islamist would-be technocrats. While some of the project's ideas on institutional reform, economic development, and urban renewal are impressive, they shouldn't be taken as the end point of what Islamists are trying to do.
Islamists have a core constituency that, naturally, wants to see sharia implemented. Democracy does not necessarily moderate such ambitions: According to most polls, the Egyptian public wants to see more Islam and Islamic law in their politics, not less. And then there are the Salafis, the second-largest electoral bloc in the country, who are likely to do whatever they can to drag the Brotherhood -- and everyone else, if possible -- further to the right.
A manufactured consensus may, in fact, be easier to forge now, in this early stage of Egypt's democratic transition. "Islamists" and "non-Islamists" may hate each other, but, on substance, the gap isn't currently as large as it might be. In the longer run, however, the consensus that so many seem to be searching and hoping for may not actually exist.