Can We Really Know How the Muslim Brotherhood Would Govern?

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Questioning the assumptions about how Egypt's big Islamist party will behave.

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Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi at a rally in Cairo. Reuters

Egypt continues to be extraordinarily interesting.  As I write, we are expecting a cabinet reshuffle, there are rumors that Mohamed Morsi--the Muslim Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party candidate for president--will pull out of the race if the Brothers get a place in the new government, the Salafi al Nour party endorsed Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh for president, and Mohamed ElBaradei has returned to the political arena with the formation of the Constitution Party.  All this occurred in a single weekend, which really isn't the astonishing thing about these developments.  Rather, it is astonishing that Egypt has had more than a few weekends like this since Hosni Mubarak's flight to Sharm El Sheikh in February 2011.  The last four weeks or so, in particular, have been a real barnburner as Egyptians gear up for the presidential election slated for May 23.  Throughout the ups and downs and twists and turns of Egyptian politics during the last 16 months observers--including myself--have held fast to a number of assumptions that form the basis of what's become a standard narrative about the future of Egypt.  Yet, it is entirely unclear after all that has happened since the promising days and weeks after the uprising that these ideas reflect reality.

For example, consider the issue of a new constitution.  In March 2011, 76 percent of Egyptians voted yes in a referendum that altered a number of articles of the constitution, deleted another, and set a timeline for elections as well as for drafting a new constitution.  During the Mubarak era everyone in the opposition and foreign Egypt-watchers understood the need for a new constitution.  The document, which was initially drafted and approved in 1971 with major amendments in 1980, 2005, and 2007, concentrates power in the executive at the expense of the legislature and the judiciary.  As long as Mubarak dominated Egyptian politics and it seemed that there would be a smooth transition from him to another regime-related figure, the constitution was an excellent political issue that the opposition--across the political spectrum--could use against the country's authoritarian leadership.  Consequently, it is reasonable to assume that Egypt's main political actors want a new constitution and that they will approach the matter in a way that corrects the central defect of the existing document.

Yet circumstances have changed considerably since 2010, March 2011, and even two weeks ago.  Why should observers still believe that Egypt's political forces want a new constitution that rebalances the distribution of power in Egypt's political system? Because they said so a few months or years ago? Because they showed up for the Constituent Assembly before the Egyptian courts dissolved it? That's a thin reed.  I am perfectly willing to believe that the Muslim Brotherhood, leftists, liberals, Salafis, and whoever else want a new constitution, but we should critically examine their incentives to write one before we proceed from this assumption. Some months ago, I tweeted that for the "winners" in Egyptian politics, a powerful executive might not be such a bad thing.  Only those politicians and parties who do not have much of a chance at winning the presidency have an incentive to write a new constitution that sets out a more even distribution of power among the branches of government.  Surveying Egypt's political arena, the array of liberal groups and social democrats have a clear interest in this change.  In addition, they are liberals so--contrary to contemporary debates in American domestic politics--they believe in limiting executive power as a matter of course. I would probably include the Left in this group if only because despite its enormous potential to move Egyptian politics, it is fragmented and clearly fighting below its class.

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Steven A. Cook is Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square. He blogs at From the Potomac to the Euphrates.

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