This column first appeared on UPI.com.
Egypt appears to have turned the clock back to the Mubarak era. The military is the kingmaker while Muslim Brotherhood leaders are imprisoned and the organization is being driven underground.
But there is a key difference: Democratic elections are in the making. And while that’s a positive development filled with high expectations, the bloodstained crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood places Egypt’s future democratic governability in question. There can be no moderate democratic Egypt without a positively engaged Muslim Brotherhood.
The new regime’s extra-judicial prosecution of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and the steadfast crackdown on its supporters are remarkably shortsighted. The liberal government and its military backers are gravely underestimating the ballot-box impact and prowess of the Muslim organization.
With a fragmented and polarized politics, along with liberal parties electorally handicapped, the Muslim Brotherhood is the one political force that holds the key to any majority rule in general and a centrist rule in particular.
Nowadays, Egypt can only experience three possible coalition-based electoral outcomes:
The first involves liberal minority rule, a less-than-ideal outcome that would likely come with active military backing.
The second includes moderate and centrist majority rule — an ideal but unlikely result.
The final and third outcome involves Islamist majority rule. This is a less-than-tolerant result that can be achieved, at least, through an absolute parliamentary majority.
If elections were today, Islamist parties would likely hold a majority in Parliament even if they failed to capture the presidency but whether a new governing majority would be centrist or extremist depends solely on the Muslim Brotherhood and its alignment as a political force. Through its Freedom and Justice Party, or its influence in general, the Brotherhood can deliver a legislative majority either to moderate liberals or to extreme Islamists.
But can the Muslim Brotherhood be a moderate political partner? Yes, at least potentially. Moderation and pragmatism are part of its political DNA. In fact, President Mohamed Morsi’s uncompromising rule and strategic failures were his own, not the Brotherhood’s.
As I undertook political consulting work in Egypt at the end of 2012, the insulated course of Morsi’s presidency became quickly apparent. By then, only in the eyes of the media and the opposition were Morsi and his inner circle synonyms with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party. The presidential palace’s political revolving door, in fact, had long been shut.
Morsi’s rule stood largely on its own amid its many shortcomings and rather few accomplishments. His eventual removal months later took place on the backdrop of a failed and tone-deaf presidency that culminated in his refusal to meet the military’s July 1 ultimatum for compromise and inclusive government. But that was only “the last straw that broke the camel’s back.”
Faced with a steep learning curve and lack of experience in politics, Morsi struggled in putting forth a vision for all Egyptians. He generally demonstrated a lack of political strategy acumen that left him vulnerable to political pressures from the left and right — pressures that proved just too much for a novice president to handle.
These pressures channeled complex interests by well-funded and politically shrewd groups, with former regime liberals single-mindedly committed to safeguarding their gains of the last 30 years and fundamentalist Wahhabi and Salafi Muslims solely intent at advancing their vision of Islam.
Squeezed in the middle, Morsi became unwilling to court moderates — the millions outside of the Muslim Brotherhood who helped vote him into office — in order to neutralize those undermining his presidency. He wanted little more than to cleanse the Egyptian political environment of influences of the former regime, or what he called the “deep state.”
But these were forces that also happened to be the most vocal and vicious in attacking him; and those who, to his detriment, caused his greatest political damage. They used endless resources to control much of the media’s political discourse and to dictate the terms of the debate between the opposition and the president.
Furthermore, through their bureaucratic allies, they quietly worked to challenge and even undermine Morsi’s rule by slowing or stonewalling the execution of his administration’s policies.
On this background, the Salafists and Wahhabis seized on the opportunity to court the Muslim Brotherhood, offer support and gain constitutional and legislative alliances. But these were nothing more than ad-hoc alliances. Even moderates among the Muslim organization’s leadership and the rank-and-file felt uneasy with such political partnerships.
However, an undermined Muslim Brotherhood could hardly reach out to moderate groups among the opposition. Morsi had been alienating these moderates.
Within this complex framework, a cornered Morsi sporadically issued weak calls at dialogue — often too little, too late and with no impact. He increasingly isolated himself, lost perspective and eventually lost the country. At the end, Morsi’s leadership and strategic shortcomings became the sole determinant of a failed presidency.
But while Morsi may be gone for good, the Muslim Brotherhood remains — however battered.
During Hosni Mubarak’s rule, elections were meaningless and represented one tool to put a check on the sociopolitical power of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now elections produce meaningful results. Regardless of the extent of the crackdown on its leadership and supporters alike, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ability to deliver votes is significant and carries electoral consequences.
Prosecution or even persecution does little to a robust and resilient grassroots organization that counts millions of potential voters among its members and sympathizers — all the while the liberal opposition is fraught with infighting and a lack of organizational muscle.
In democracy, it is majorities that rule. And in a democratic Egypt, whether we like it or not, the Muslim Brotherhood is going to be key to any electoral majority rule. The country’s political center, the military, and the recently installed liberal government should be mindful of that.
Nino Saviano is a Republican strategist and president of Washington’s Savi Political Consulting. Through his international work, Saviano has been advising political leaders and candidates around the world, including Egypt.