“I told you so,” an Egyptian acquaintance said over the telephone moments after Mohammad Mursi had been declared as winner of the country’s first credible presidential election. “It was either us or them.”
Proceeding with his mocking tone, my interlocutor repeated the claim made by Egypt’s ruling elite for six decades that the alternative to rule by the military would be a dictatorship dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s successive dictators claimed that they provided the country and the region with stability.
I never shared that analysis because what they produced was not stability but stagnation. I believed that, given a chance, Egypt had the potential to develop options other military rule or domination by the Brotherhood.
Even then, the fact that tomorrow Mursi will be sworn in as Egypt’s first truly elected president must be rated as good news.
The military elite and its business associates have a record stretching back six decades. On balance, that record is a negative one. Under their rule, Egypt was condemned to under-achievement, to say the least. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has no record in government. It would, therefore, be unfair to condemn it on the basis of assumed intentions. Of course, once in government, the Brotherhood may well end up doing a great deal of mischief. However, it is fair to remember that they haven’t done so yet.
Mursi starts his presidency with several points of strength.
First of these is his democratic legitimacy. The elections were generally free and clean with the results accepted by all concerned. The election campaign, fought in two rounds, allowed for a range of views to be put on the market. Mursi won because he was able to produce a broader synthesis of those views than his run-off rival Ahmad Shafiq.
Mursi’s second point of strength is that his presidency comes in the context of a broader historic movement that is reshaping Arab politics across the region. In other words, his victory is not a freakish trick of history.
Finally, Mursi may have yet another point of strength: his moderate temperament and penchant for pragmatism.
Judging by his statements over the years he seems to have learned a great deal from the Turkish experience in which a new generation of Islamists, led by Recep Tayyib Erdogan, developed the concept of coexistence between a religious society and a secular state.
Inevitably, Mursi also has points of weakness.
The first is the narrowness of his victory.
In the first round of voting he collected around 25 per cent of the votes in a turnout of 42 per cent. In other words, only 11 per cent of the total electorate voted for him. In the second round he collected just over 51 per cent in a turnout of 51 per cent which means that he attracted only a quarter of eligible voters. In other words, 75 per cent of the electorate did not vote for him.
The narrowness of Mursi’s victory does not undermine his legitimacy. In political terms, however, it limits his options.
Mursi’s second point of weakness is the confusion that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the country’s interim authority, has spun around the function of the presidency.
Perhaps, Egypt would have done better to get a new constitution before holding presidential elections.
The establishment of a new constitution and the election of a new parliament within the next year or so, as SCAF has promised, could produce a new vision of the presidential function. In other words, within a year or so, Egypt could face another presidential election under a new constitution.
Many in Egypt want to replace the presidential system with one in which executive power is exercised by a prime minister answerable to the national assembly. The reason is that a presidential system is more vulnerable to the emergence of dictatorial temptations.
More importantly, perhaps, Mursi’s relationship with the Brotherhood may also be a point of weakness.
I don’t agree with those who mocked Mursi as “the fifth wheel”. History is full of instances in which “second choices” emerged as strong leaders.
Who could have imagined that poor old Claudius would one day become Emperor of Rome and outclass many of his predecessors? And who would have thought that Harry Truman, “the grocer from Missouri”, would become one of the strongest presidents in US history? And what about Georges Pompidou, dismissed as “that schoolteacher from Auvergne”, who succeeded General de Gaulle and became the most successful president of the French Fifth Republic?
Some Egyptian friends dismiss Mursi as “Khairat al-Shater’s man”. In politics, however, nobody is anybody’s man, and biting the hand that feeds you is routinely practiced. So, I don’t believe that Mursi would be on the telephone to Shater asking for instructions. Shater, of course, may now make a deal with the generals to develop a prime ministerial, rather than a presidential system, in the hope that he himself with get the premiership. However, that would be legitimate political maneuver and need not affect Mursi’s position at least during the transition.
Nevertheless, sandwiched between SCAF and the Brotherhood, Mursi, who lacks his own organizational base, still faces a tough ride.
Of course, if he has time to seize effective control of the state machinery he would need neither SCAF nor the Brotherhood.
But will he have the time needed?
It is in everyone’s interest that the transition presided over by Mursi succeeds. A stable Egypt in which the state and the people are not at war against each other would be in everyone’s interest. Mursi’s election offers a chance. It should not be missed.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Asharq Al Awsat on June. 29, 2012