Egypt's Second Chance

The Arab world has never seen anything quite like Sunday's excruciatingly delayed announcement that the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed el-Morsi had won Egypt's presidential election. The enormous outburst of enthusiasm in Tahrir after Morsi's victory was announced -- and the rapid resurgence of Egypt's stock exchange -- suggests how narrowly Egypt escaped the complete collapse of its political process. This isn't the time for silly debates about "who lost Egypt," since against all odds Egypt isn't lost. On the contrary, it has just very, very narrowly avoided complete disaster -- and for all the problems which Morsi's victory poses to Egypt and to the international community, it at least gives Egypt another chance at a successful political transition which only a few days ago seemed completely lost.   

Outside of the Brotherhood itself, this popular response was more a celebration of Shafik's defeat than of Morsi's victory. The signs leading up to the announcement strongly suggested that the SCAF had carried out a "soft coup" aborting its promised transition to civilian rule.   The dissolution of Parliament and the issuing of the controversial constitutional annex, along with the long delay in releasing the results and the rampaging rumors of the deployment of military forces and warnings of Brotherhood intrigues, all pointed to the announcement of a Shafik victory which hadn't been earned at the ballot box. 

It's actually quite astounding in some ways that the SCAF didn't -- or couldn't -- rig the election in Shafik's favor. I agree with those who suggested that the Brotherhood likely saved Morsi's victory by rapidly releasing results from every precinct -- results which proved to be extremely accurate. This masterstroke of Calvinball established the narrative that Morsi had won and that Shafik could only be named the victor through fraud, and it also dramatically reduced the room for maneuver for anyone hoping to carry out the cruder forms of electoral fraud. A Shafik victory widely seen as fraudulent would have ended any hope of a political transition, and would have likely meant a return to severe political and social turbulence.

International pressure along with intense behind the scenes political talks in the days following the election also almost certainly contributed to the SCAF's decision. Support for the democratic process, and not any particular support for the Muslim Brotherhood, is why the United States and other outside actors pushed the SCAF so hard publicly and privately to not pull the Shafik trigger. Quiet American diplomacy, which combined continued efforts to maintain a positive relationship with the SCAF with a stern warning that it must complete the promised transition to civilian rule, appears to have played a key role. And the Brotherhood almost certainly gave the SCAF a number of guarantees in the quiet negotiations which reassured the nervous military -- while, of course, infuriating revolutionaries ever attuned to the Brothers selling them out. While such a negotiated outcome might not seem especially democratic, it's hard to see how it could really have gone differently given the intense institutional uncertainty, pervasive doubts and fears, and the reality of the balance of power.  

It's important to not overstate the extent of Morsi's victory, which neither proved overwhelming electorally nor put the Muslim Brotherhood in a dominant position in Egyptian politics. The MB's decision to field a presidential candidate was only very partially vindicated by his victory, and is still likely to create more problems than opportunities for the traditionally secretive and cautious movement. Many revolutionary political forces already had a bill of complaints against the Islamist movement (supporting the March 2011 constitutional amendments, not joining various Tahrir protests, trying to dominate the constitutional assembly, having the nerve to win parliamentary elections, and so forth).  Breaking their very public promise to not run a presidential candidate drove a sharp wedge between the Brotherhood and other political forces because it seemed to confirm a prevailing narrative about their hunger for power and noncredible commitments. 

Morsi and the Brotherhood clearly did pay a political price for this behavior.  Morsi slipped into the run-off with a quarter of the vote only because non-Islamist revolutionary forces failed to unite around a single candidate and instead split 50 percent of the vote three ways.  Nor was the performance in the runoff especially impressive, as Morsi managed only 51 percent despite running against a caricature of a figurehead of the old regime. There were almost the same number of voided ballots as the margin of victory. Morsi is going to have to quickly take significant moves to reach out to those political forces in the next few days if he has any hope of bridging a polarized polity. He has already begun these efforts, meeting with the martyrs of the revolution (including Khaled Said's mother) and signaling that he would appoint Christians, women, independents and technocrats to key government positions. If he's smart, he will prioritize rapid moves to create jobs, stabilize the economy, reform government ministries, and restore a sense of security and political stability. It isn't going to be easy to overcome the deep, raw wounds which have been opened between Egypt's political forces, and little which has happened over the last year is reassuring... but at least there's a chance to try.

Finally, it remains deeply unclear how much power Morsi will have. The constitutional annex announced in the midst of the presidential vote sharply limits the power of the presidency. Morsi isn't commander in chief and can't declare war, and won't be able to appoint his own people to key government ministries. If he can't even appoint his own minister of the interior or minister of defense, he isn't exactly likely to be rushing towards imposing sharia law. There's still no parliament, with the SCAF absurdly granting legislative power to itself -- will Morsi approve legislation by "liking" it on the SCAF Facebook page?  

But he will not necessarily accept those limits. The truth is, this is still Calvinball. No rules are set in stone, everything is up for negotiation, and there are no guarantees about anything. I don't believe that the SCAF is firmly in control or has been manipulating events behind the scenes, or that the MB has accepted a permanently subordinate position. Nor do I think that the current constitutional annex will necessarily stand, or that the courts will take consistent positions, or that the parliament will remain dissolved. Morsi will struggle with suspicious political forces, the absence of a parliament, a recalcitrant SCAF, hostile state institutions keen to frustrate any changes, an economy still in something like a death spiral, and a suspicious outside world. The ferocious rumor mill of Egypt's wildly contentious press will continue to exacerbate every political issue into a crisis, and attempt to string together some coherent story out of the limited information available to them. 

In other words -- Egyptian politics. It's not as good as many had hoped for by this stage. But it's a lot better than it looked a few days ago. And that's something. So save the inappropriate comparisons between Cairo 2012 and Tehran 1979, and put those "who lost Egypt" talking points on hold. This is only the beginning of a long, intense political struggle to come -- but at least there's still a political process with which to engage.  

We Are All Khaled Said Facebook Page, June 25, 2012

Marc Lynch

Calvinball in Cairo

The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes -- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.   

For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!"). The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt's current state of play?

As in Calvinball, the one constant in Cairo's trainwreck of a transition seems to be the constantly changing rules and absolute institutional uncertainty. Prior to the first round of the presidential election, several key candidates were disqualified on questionable grounds. Efforts to form a constitutional assembly before the presidential election failed, then succeeded, then failed again. Just before the presidential election, the Supreme Constitutional Court declared the parliamentary election law unconstitutional, leading to the dissolution of Egypt's first freely elected parliament. But the parliament's speaker rejected the ruling, declaring that he would convene a session anyway.

Then, in the midst of the presidential election, the SCAF unilaterally issued a constitutional amendment annex greatly expanding its own power and limiting that of the incoming president. Whoever wins, the powers of the presidency have been radically constrained, while the SCAF has granted itself legislative power (!) and more or less total immunity from any civilian oversight. This rather strips the promised transfer of power to civilian rule of its significance, while falling far short of establishing a legitimate, consensus set of rules of the road for Egyptian politics. Small wonder everyone quickly labeled it a coup, soft or otherwise. But then, in a defensive press conference today, SCAF representatives defended their democratic commitments with explanations which seemed to contradict the text of their own constitutional amendment annex. 

Then, just as the fix seemed in for the old regime's candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, the campaign of his Muslim Brotherhood rival Mohamed Morsi claimed a smashing victory based on the tallies of its observers in all Egyptian voting booths. But the Shafiq campaign disagrees, and official results may not be announced until Thursday, leaving plenty of time for this to change. The interpretation of the constitutional annex -- by the SCAF, by the judiciary, and by all political trends -- will likely change depending on the outcome of the election. In the next few days, a parliament might or might not seat itself, the new president might or might not be empowered, a new constitutional assembly might or might not be formed. And tomorrow, another of Egypt's endlessly inventive judges may declare the Muslim Brotherhood itself illegal. 

But here's the thing -- Calvin doesn't always win at Calvinball. Players succeed by responding quickly and creatively to the constantly changing conditions. Hobbes plays brilliantly, as one might expect. But even Rosalyn, the dread babysitter, figures out the rules lurking within the absence of rules and has Calvin running from water balloons before he knows it.  

In other words, Watterson's game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball's absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin. The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy. Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?

And with that, it's back to scanning all available news sources for the latest twists and turns in Egypt's high stakes game of Calvinball. Who says game theory isn't relevant to real world politics? 

Note:  all images courtesy of dedicated Calvin and Hobbes fans, and all rights reserved to the legendary Bill Watterson.