Monday, March 28, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: Why the Muslim Brotherhood Is Supporting El Baradei for President

While there is yet to be an official report on the matter, according to the rumor mill on twitter, it is believed that the Muslim Brotherhood will throw it's support behind El Baradei in the upcoming presidential elections.  

Viewers in the west won't be surprised.  From the outset, El Baradei has appeared to be the Muslim Brotherhood's front man.  The smiling, nonthreatening face of liberality and psuedo-western attitude and political knowledge that the Brotherhood wanted to use to belay the idea that the revolution and the MB were a threat to the west.   

In Egypt, El Baradei had two more roles.  For the "revolutionary youth" he served as a rally point.  Someone who said all the right things about democracy, freedom and Egypt's future as a free state.  El Baradei is intelligent and capable, a "deep thinker" that appeals to Egypt's middle class, educated youth.  Others have viewed him as a "Johnny Come Lately", an opportunist who had spent the last ten years in and out of Egypt, like a tourist, while they were the ones who suffered under Mubarek's regime.

It is difficult to assess El Baradei's true position.  He continues to speak "above the noise" talking about democracy in Egypt, even as some supporters express concerns that he is still to detached from the Egyptians on the street.  In an odd split from the MB's support of El Baradei, the MB went on the record as supporting the amendments to the Constitution in the March 19 referendum even as El Baradei rejected the amendments and the rush to elections.  

He stated that the political parties in Egypt needed time to organize and present candidates.  Many of the "revolutionary youth" supported this approach, fearful that the only parties organized and funded well enough to contest the upcoming elections successfully were the remains of the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood.  Regardless of their objections, the referendum was passed by an overwhelming 77% 'yes'.  

Now the Muslim Brotherhood is apparently considering El Baradei as their candidate of choice for President.  Some of El Baradei's liberal secular supporters wonder if the MB is trying to sabotage El Baradei's chances by peeling off liberal secular supporters.  That is probably not the MB's calculation.  

The Muslim Brotherhood has been playing very smart politics throughout the revolution and post Mubarek regime, even as it has seen some internal struggles to define and move the party forward.  It remained in the background as a whole organization even as the MB Youth went into the streets with the revolutionaries.  To some this appeared that the MB was hedging it's bets against the possibility that the revolution would fail.  The loss of some of it's young members would have been hailed as the participation of martyrs in the eternal struggle even as the MB attempted to negotiate with the ailing Mubarek regime.  

In the end, the revolution prevailed and the MB was able to denounce these conferences as individuals taking their own initiative.  The MB as a whole did not even appear in the streets until the revolution had been assured ascendency.  

It is this ability to play to more than one side while finding their own path to power that puts them behind El Baradei.  The only other viable candidate at this time is Amr Moussa, previously Egypt's ambassador to the Arab League.  When he re-appeared in Egypt, there were many reports that his posting to the League had been a move by Mubarek to distance a potential trouble maker and reformist from the NDP and presidency.  Others disagree, insisting that Amr Moussa is still a stalwart NDP man and connected to the Mubarek Regime.  The MB would be hung out to dry by it's opposition in the revolution if they showed any real attachment to Moussa.  

Moussa's support seems to come from the part of Egypt that is wary of the radical shift in politics and the instability caused by the revolution.  They seem to be looking for a familiar face who has some idea what it means to work with other countries in the region and garner support.

Aym Nour is far too liberal and has the taint of a conviction against him, even as he wears it as a badge of honor, insisting that he was a victim of political jury rigging.  Batawasy, a judge and a known reformist who was mildly persecuted by the previous regime, seems to be the choice of the intelligentsia.  He is a high minded individual who speaks in very broad terms.  His focus in general has been the reformation of the judiciary as an independent body.  A noble and necessary step on a subject that has concerned many Egyptians that saw the judiciary as nothing but a puppet of the regime. 

However, this is not the stuff a presidential bid.  In fact, his focus and position as a judge who has made a career of the law may make him a danger to the MB as much as or more so than Moussa.  It would be likely that Batawasy would attempt to insure the presidency remained within the letter of any law of the constitution proscribing the president's powers and those of the Assembly when signing any law into being or using the presidential powers to enforce any law.  

El Baradei is much less dangerous to the MB.  First, the main coalition supporting him is disorganized and politically weak.  Their ability to capture any significant numbers of seats in the parliament is questionable by the MB's standards as well as analysts in the west.  For any presidency to be strong enough to resist potentially popular, but detrimental laws, he would need a good base of support in the Assembly and Shura counsel.  Enough support that they would be able to soften or modify any laws presented by the MB before they came to his desk and forced him to either make an unpopular decision to veto it or forced him to fall in line with the populists to the detriment of Egypt.  

The MB's assessment of El Baradei's political weakness is not only a matter of his disorganized support, but the outcome of the referendum.  El Baradei called not only for a 'no' vote, but was asking for an entirely different procedure to be in place for the interim government and writing of the constitution.  A process that would have given the liberal/secular groups at least an equal power to formulate the document and the future law of the land.  El Baradei's voice was practically drowned out in the cacophony of joyous rush to the polls.  To the Brotherhood, this would be a sign that El Baradei does not enjoy popular support.  At least, not without them behind him.  Without support in the assembly nor popular support in the greater body politic of Egypt, El Baradei's term as president would be incredibly weak.

Second, without strong, liberal allies in the assembly, El Baradei would be much more open to persuasion.  Due to the nature of the previous regime and the power of the presidency, a power that remains intact until the constitution is written, El Baradei would be much more likely to limit his use of presidential powers.  There would be no decrees that would thwart the MB's plans.  The presidency under El Baradei in the interim period would be considerably weaker than the power of the Assembly.  Especially, if El Baradei was reluctant to use even the balancing power of the veto.

Worse, El Baradei has no real connections to the military.  The military, for better or worse, are playing the role of the broker in Egypt's nascent democracy.  For now, possibly for the future, the military represents the real power structure in Egypt.  Without allies in the military, El Baradei would find himself caught between a rock and a hard place.   A position that would likely find him leaning towards the Brotherhood for support, strengthening their position.  

Third, the interim period of governing and creating a workable constitution will be messy and dangerous.  The person that sets on top of this process is not likely to be viewed as a savior by anybody at the end.  The process is going to require compromise and caution, neither of which any part of the Egyptian polity is very willing to accept if the 'yes' vote on the referendum is any measure to go by.  That will make even the most adroit politician practically unelectable for the next presidential election.  

El Baradei may be the candidate most likely to help push the constitution along and achieve "unity" for the Egyptian people.  The issue here is that, in the end, he will likely be seen as an obstructionist by the Islamist/MB camp and a sell out by those who supported him because he compromised on an issue near and dear to their hearts.

The Muslim Brotherhood is playing politics like the very old hands that they are.  They know that the election to win today is the upcoming vote for assembly representatives.  The next assembly will write the constitution.  All of Egypt's future laws will flow from this document.  It will set the tone for Egypt's political future for decades to come.  It will also be the document that lays out the powers of the various branches and offices of government. 

In the future, the role of the president may be greatly inhibited by this document.  That reduction in power would be likely supported by the people who are justifiably leery of a single person having too much power.  If Iraq and other parliamentary governments emerging from dictatorship are anything to go by, most of the power granted by the constitution is likely to fall into the hands of the assembly and the Prime Minister. 

The Prime Minister is not elected separately, but is chosen by whatever party or coalition of parties is able to constitute a governing majority out of the elected assembly members.  If the MB is calculating right, they likely believe that they will either have this majority in hand or will have enough of a presence to form a coalition with several weaker parties, even Salafists or leftists, who will be in no position to field a candidate for approval from the assembly nor be able to thwart the MB's selection. 

Once the writing for the constitution is achieved, the presidency will likely be a non-issue.  A position that the MB might not even attempt to obtain as it will get much of the country's umbrage and very few perks.  They will then be secure in their positions in the Assembly, always forming at least part of the governing coalition, close to the seat of prime minister and filling numerous cabinets with the power to control the apparatus of government along with making the laws.  

In the end, if the Muslim Brotherhood announces their full support of El Baradei for the presidency, it won't be because they see him as an "honest broker", but because he is the least dangerous to their aspirations. 

In the end, the liberal/secular focus on the presidency instead of the assembly elections will be their down fall.  The presidency will mean nothing without adequate support in the assembly and definition by the new constitution.  This will not be an all powerful presidency ruling over the assembly, but a presidency that is either subservient to the will of the assembly or, if the position has a stroke of luck, an equal partner, depending on how the constitution is written. 

Any hopes of a truly free and equitable Egypt with a limited Islamic bent will depend not on the presidency, but on the first parliamentary elections for the People's Assembly.  The first parliament writes the constitution.  After that, it will be a matter of Egyptians trying to live under those rules for a very long time.

No comments: