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On The Path To Democracy, Egypt Must Learn The Art Of Compromise

This article is more than 6 years old.

The pictures from Cairo are certainly compelling. Jubilant protesters dance, and fireworks light up the sky in celebration of the ouster of Egypt’s President Morsi. With the unvarnished joy on exhibit in Tahrir Square, many may feel hopeful if not happy at the turn of events.

But not me.

To be clear, I am no fan of Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood. The democratically elected president wasted no time and used his position to ram through a constitution of questionable democratic credentials. (He did so with the support and help of the very same military that has now deposed him.) Morsi governed from his Islamist base and tried to intimidate his opponents rather than include them. Only on the literal eve of his ouster did he offer compromise.

And so now the military has intervened. Since the revolution in 1952 that toppled King Farouk, Egypt has been ruled by military governments for 60 of 61 years. Last year marked the first time that a democratically elected leader governed Egypt. It lasted one year.

Democracy is not an easy thing. It is comprised of many elements. It is complex, and it requires practice.

Now once again, the military has intervened in what is being called a “democratic coup.” I hope that oxymoron holds, that the military’s tenure will be temporary and that there is a timely transition to elections and democratic processes, but the early signs are not encouraging. In the first 24 hours of military rule, the generals have arrested the president, members of his administration, the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and members of the media, including Al Jazeera’s bureau in Cairo. This is not a very auspicious beginning for a “democratic” coup that claims all sectors of society will be represented. As someone who has written about Egypt for over a decade, this doesn’t look good.

But whatever happens over the next weeks and months, there remain deeper issues that are a cause for worry. Democracy is not an easy thing. It is comprised of many elements. It is complex, and it requires practice.

Egyptians have shown themselves to be quick learners and quite accomplished at some elements of democratic governance. In particular, they have excelled at (mostly) peaceful mass participation, whether it’s protest on the streets or turning out to vote.

They have proven far less skilled at compromise. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the new popular opposition have shown no interest in reaching out to their opponents. Politics has become an all or nothing affair, where the winners do what they want, and the losers go to jail. I recently participated in a discussion with representatives from Tamrun, the opposition movement, and the Freedom and Justice Party, the Brotherhood’s political arm. Their exchanges essentially boiled down to this: We have more people on the streets, we are legitimate, you are not, and we will not compromise on any of our demands.

That does not bode well for the future of democracy in Egypt.

(King Farouk, it should be noted, was not arrested after being deposed but was allowed a graceful exit, sailing off to Naples with the national anthem playing in the background and a 21 gun salute.)

What neither side seems to understand is that the opposition is not going to simply disappear. Nontrivial numbers of Egyptians support the old regime, large numbers support the opposition, and large numbers support the Brotherhood. If the Brotherhood is shut out of the political process, its more extreme elements will simply return to the organization’s roots and chose violence instead. This in turn will give the military the justification it needs to hold on to power.

Politics has become an all or nothing affair, where the winners do what they want, and the losers go to jail.

If Egypt is not careful, it may find itself in a continuing cycle of protest leading to economic stagnation (as tourists stay away), economic stagnation leading to dissatisfaction with the government, which leads to protest, and so on. That is a recipe for weak civilian governance, the domination of the military, and the suppression of human rights.

If that unwelcome outcome is to be avoided, the opposition needs to grow up (trumpeting a “leaderless” opposition is a recipe for chaos) and invite the Brotherhood’s participation in any future political arrangement. The Muslim Brotherhood has to continue to eschew violence but also embrace compromise, and the military has to resist the temptations and privileges of power — something that it has traditionally found difficult to do.

If Egypt cannot find its way to compromise, today’s joyous protesters will soon lament what their country has become.


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This program aired on July 5, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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