An elusive quest for consensus

In Ramadan, the frenetic pace of political events in Egypt has given way to a semblance of tenuous calm. The country appears to be stepping back from the brink and perhaps finding a way to muddle through the latest phase of its chaotic and compromised transition. However, while political actors and, more broadly, the Egyptian people are exhausted with the political process and its attendant crises, this understandable fatigue might have the unfortunate effect of masking the grim realities of the political process that will inevitably undermine the possibility of sustainable reform if no alternatives are produced by the country’s political leadership. As ever, Egypt is in desperate need for a consensual approach to politics and change.

The dueling transitional road maps offered by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and President Mohamed Morsy are anything but consensual in their approach. Both are ill-suited to constructing an open and responsive political culture and they reflect the zero-sum mentality that has reduced post-uprising politics to the battle for power between the Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood. In such an atmosphere, all political positions are judged on the basis of this simplistic calculus. If the country is unable to escape this destructive cycle, the end result will be an inability to govern the country and grapple with its pressing problems — and a discrediting of democratic politics.

The latest manifestation of this phenomenon was the attempt by the new president to reconvene the recently-dissolved parliament. Justifications for this executive action wavered between an assertion of revolutionary legitimacy to combat the country’s politicized judiciary and an attempt to cast the move as an alternative implementation of the Supreme Constitutional Court’s problematic June decision. The ambiguities of Egypt’s governing legal order gave rise to serious legal wrangling over this step, but often analysis tinged with partisan interest. Much of this controversy can be placed at the foot of the court. The profile of the constitutional court and some of its members has engendered concern regarding the impartiality of the judiciary and its ability to serve as a neutral arbiter of the constitutional order. At the very least, the courts have emerged as political players in their own right and have increasingly been perceived as intervening in defense of the reconfiguration of the old regime and in opposition to the electoral gains of the Muslim Brotherhood.

While these are reasonable reservations, the move to reconvene parliament is still difficult to understand as anything other than a direct challenge to judicial independence and a dangerous precedent for the country’s future. The court’s decision is arguable and contains serious logical tensions, but it is not wholly unsupportable on the basis of Egyptian jurisprudence. In this context, the precedent of Morsy’s actions would have normalized the arbitrary disregard of judicial rulings based on institutional self-interest.

Of course, within the context of a revolution, such extra-legal steps are fundamental and, in fact, absolutely necessary, for the establishment of a new political order. Such steps, which are inherently undemocratic, are the lifeblood of revolutionary change. Yet, the appeals by Morsy’s defenders to revolutionary legitimacy ring hollow in this instance.

Revolutionary legitimacy is a difficult phenomenon to describe with any sort of precision. Political mobilization is often undertaken by segments of society and it is impossible to quantify when and how such movements for regime change become endowed with the moral right to refashion the political order. In the wake of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt experienced such a moment of transformational possibility on the basis of revolutionary legitimacy. Yet, for various reasons, those opportunities were largely eschewed. The institutional decisions of the Muslim Brotherhood and its unilateralism in pursuit of self-interest are a component of that failure. For revolutionary legitimacy to have credence, sustainability, and moral force, it must be the product of political consensus among the country’s emerging political leadership. Without such consensus, there is no possibility for serious reform, let alone revolutionary change.

With legitimate concerns about the majoritarian impulses of the Muslim Brotherhood and their ultimate fidelity to the politics of consensus, it is unsurprising that many political actors were uninterested in undermining the separation of powers and weakening the institutional basis for judicial review.   

Opposing Morsy’s efforts in this instance should not be confused with an endorsement of the SCAF and its interference with the political process and civilian governance. The revised roadmap put forward in the wake of the dissolving of parliament in the form of the supplementary constitutional declaration is not an acceptable alternative. Instead, as ever, there is a desperate need for a consensus approach that can sustain a workable political process while fending off the encroachments of the Egyptian military. This pattern has played out enough to now be very clear: if the Egyptian political class remains divided amongst themselves, consumed with narrow agendas, the SCAF will reap the rewards.    

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow at The Century Foundation.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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