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Renewal of violence in Egypt risks jeopardizing fragile democratic gains so far made in the country

16:58 | 20.12.2012 | Analytic

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20 December 2012. PenzaNews. According to unofficial data released by Egyptian media, the first round of the referendum ended in Egypt with almost 57% approval for the new draft constitution and a turnout of about 33%. However, final results of the voting will be announced within two days after the second stage of the referendum, scheduled for 22 December 2012.

Renewal of violence in Egypt risks jeopardizing fragile democratic gains so far made in the country

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There are the liberal and secular voices that say that the Constitution is illegitimate, and the more conservative voices that support it. The situation in Egypt right now is quite precarious; the Egyptian society is polarized, thinks Nathan Lean, editor-in-chief at Aslan Media.

“On the one hand, these conversations are absolutely necessary and it is good that they are taking place. But the unfortunate reality is that there is such a sharp divide, that is not healthy for democratic consolidation. The first referendum vote on the constitution, in which 57% of the population agreed to it, complicates things, particularly for the opposition. At this point, it is not entirely clear what will happen should the second round of voting produce similar results but I imagine that the reaction from those who oppose it will be quite fierce and produce a swell of instability and protest,” the Middle East expert told news agency “PenzaNews.”

Moreover, in his opinion, the opposition is stronger than Mohamed Morsi believes it is.

“What we are seeing is that the official opposition coalition is bringing a broad swathe of other opponents of the government under its umbrella. Now there are secular, liberal, and leftist parties, and even former presidential candidates who are urging a different path forward,” Nathan Lean noted.

At the same time, the stumbling point of the opposition has been, so far, that they have been so focused on what they oppose — and making their voices heard in protests — that they have lost sight of effective strategies that would, in the case of referendum votes, produce a groundswell of activism that would help their cause at the polls.

“There is a general assumption that if the Arab Spring produces Islamist governments, then that, by definition, is not democratic. That is just nonsense. Democratization is not a process that is going to “spring” up from the ground over night, or even over the course of several months, maybe even years. Certainly, the election of Islamist governments signals that Arabs reject in wholesale foreign states telling them how to run their affairs. But that does not mean, either, that we are headed in a direction of authoritarianism. It is unfair to say, for example, that Egypt is, as a result of Morsi’s recent power grabs, moving backwards towards authoritarianism a la Mubarak. The presidency does not come with most of the powers that it came with back in the 1970s — while Mubarak was essentially in office for three decades, the constitution now reduces term lengths from six to four years, and only allows the president to be re-election once. That is a dramatic shift, not only for Egypt, which is thought to be the pulse of the Arab world, but for the entire region,” the analyst said.

According to him, the Arab Spring was not an event that was itself all that revolutionary: it was an important turning point — one that steered these Arab countries off the path of authoritarianism and in the direction of a democratic endpoint that may not be realized fully for some time to come.

“It is hard to have one free democratic election and claim that society has transformed. I predict that Egypt and other countries like it will not fully feel the effects of revolution until they experience these processes multiple times,” Nathan Lean emphasized.

In the meantime, Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, reader in the comparative and international politics of western Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London believes that Egypt is experiencing all the rage and trepidation that a democratic transition inevitably brings about.

“I do not see any threat to the country’s stability given that all the stakeholders – the government, the opposition and the military – are invested in the political process,” the expert stated.

“The opposition pressures are strong because the yardstick of politics in the Arab and Muslim world is social justice, political empowerment and transparency. These are norms that are difficult to adhere to by any state. Having said that, the Muslim Brotherhood seems sufficiently anchored institutionally to balance the pendulum, at least for now,” he added.

In his opinion, the Arab revolts are historic because they have shifted the conditions according to which politics is measured as “successful, legitimate and just.”

“The political ramblings will go on for the short to middle term. These are the birth pains of transition which will deliver a rather more democratized system,” Arshin Adib-Moghaddam emphasized.

In turn, Hugh Lovatt, expert working on the European Council of Foreign Relations’ Middle East and North Africa Program suggested that there is more than enough blame to go around for the current crisis with all sides adopting generally uncompromising and maximalist positions which have only served to accentuate the fault lines running through Egyptian society.

“This is by far the most dangerous crisis since the revolution which will largely determine the future identity of Egypt,” the analyst.

According to the expert, much blame rests with President Morsi who massively overreached by underestimating popular backlash.

“His calculations lacked his previous cautiousness, and seem to have been inspired initially by overconfidence, then by increasing paranoia as popular opposition mounted. His constitutional decree was ill thought out and hastily enacted, and came as a surprise to many of his advisors (3 of whom resigned) as well as those within his cabinet including Vice President Mahmoud Mekke. A the heart of his constitutional decree seemed to be a fear – whether real or imagined – that the Supreme Constitutional Court was on the verge of dissolving the Upper House of Parliament and the Constituent Assembly and repealing Morsi’s previous August decree – a step tantamount to handing control back to SCAF. In this context, Morsi has farmed his actions as a necessity to safeguard the revolution from remnants of the “ancien régime”, some of whom remain within Egypt’s judiciary. The real tragedy though was that Morsi never bothered to explain his actions to the general public and in doing so lost a chance to rise above the Secular/Liberal VS Muslim Brotherhood divide by casting himself as the President of all Egyptians who governs through consensus,” Hugh Lovatt explained.

Meanwhile, the expert thinks, “the opposition also shares much of the blame, having early on staked out intransigent demands which would have been impossible for the Morsi to meet had he been so inclined.”

“For the opposition, this is not just about the constitution, but comes within the context of what they perceive as a wider Muslim Brotherhood strategy to entrench its cadres within key positions. As such many would have welcomed the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated Upper Chamber or Constitutional Assembly by the Supreme Court. The opposition also undoubtedly sees the current crisis as a means to strengthen its hand ahead of the next round of parliamentary elections. A major step forward in this regard has been the coming together of several opposition groups under the banner of the ElBaradei-led National Salvation Front, even though the NSF’s top tier can hardly be said to control street level activists,” the analyst said.

“However, the Egyptian opposition is far from a homogenous affair and seems more like a Faustian marriage of convenience between disparate and marginalized groups, including Nasserites, some Islamists, Coptic Christians and Liberals along with remnants of the “ancien régime” who have become emboldened and started to re-emerge onto the political scene. This is perhaps the most worrying aspect so far: many opposition activists fear it is increasingly coming down to a choice between either a liberal or an Islamist autocracy. Forced to choose, many liberal/secular activists will chose the latter,” Hugh Lovatt added.

According to him, the Arab Spring has had a major impact on the political calculations made by Islamist groups who now see empowerment through political participation and democratic elections as their best means of gaining power and winning popularly legitimacy.

“However, as we have seen with the rise of Muslim Brotherhood this has necessitated a large degree of pragmatism and moderation on the part of their leaders: not seeking the imposition of Sharia law, for example. As a model for where they are heading I would hold up the example of the AKP in Turkey, which espouses Islamic principles – especially in relation to “family values” – and yet remains committed to pluralism. As such, in my opinion the question at the moment is not so much about whether a relatively pluralistic democracy can emerge in Egypt, but how conservative or liberal this system of governance will be,” the analyst stated.

Analyzing possible developments of the situation, the expert suggested that the constitution would be approved.

“Much will now depend on the referendum result and how each sides reacts. Faced with a “yes” vote the opposition will likely attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the results through street protests and the court system. A “no” vote on the other hand, would be a severe blow for Morsi and would likely lead to increasing opposition calls for him to resign. Whatever the results, a renewal of violent confrontation risks severely jeopardizing the transitional process and the fragile democratic gains made so far,” Hugh Lovatt concluded.

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