Can We Really Know How the Muslim Brotherhood Would Govern?

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.

I am not so sure whether the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, wants a new constitution that limits the power of the executive, however.  It certainly depends on the circumstances.  Some rumors suggest that the Brotherhood's presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, may be on his way out of the race.  The twittersphere has all but declared Morsi's candidacy dead in light of endorsements the former Brother, Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh, received from the al Nour Party, al Gama'a al Islamiyya, and Wael Ghonim.  If Morsi loses or withdraws, it is clear that the Brothers will want a constitution that maximizes the power of the People's Assembly, where they hold 45 percent of the seats.  Then again, maybe not.  If nothing else, the Muslim Brotherhood is patient.  Morsi is an apparatchik who can lose or withdraw without much damage to the organization, setting the Brothers up for a serious run at the presidency next time around.  If that is the case, why diminish the power of an office you expect to hold eventually?

I harbor doubts about most of the scenarios that seem to be the product of sheer speculation as well as the polling coming out of Egypt.  With everything that has happened, it is hard to predict anything about Egypt with any certainty other than the fact that there will be traffic, the koshari will be good, and the Nile will continue to flow north.  There is a lot of time between now and May 23 when the polls open.  The Muslim Brotherhood could win, making Morsi Egypt's next president.  Over the course of 84 years, the Brotherhood has made important, long-lasting marks on Egyptian politics and society.  Yet holding the presidency would provide the organization with an unprecedented opportunity to advance its agenda.  It doesn't seem like a propitious moment to reduce their own power through constitutional limits on the executive.

A lot of Muslim Brotherhood experts out there will tell me that I am wrong, that the Muslim Brotherhood will be good to its word (like not running for president?) and the organization is a force for democratic change. Or they will say it doesn't matter because the Brothers are doomed.  Those are certainly ways of looking at the Brothers, but, in fact, we don't know what will happen. Either way, observers should be more careful when drawing conclusions about what the Brotherhood will do with power based solely on what the Brothers say.  Thus far, it is an empirical question, but we can glean some insight based on their incentives, which suggest that the Brothers aren't going to work very hard to write a new constitution that levels the playing field between the branches of government.  Maybe the Brothers will preside over writing a new constitution, but the outcome will likely serve their interests.  It is important to recognize that institutions--rules, laws, regulations--are the result of political struggles and as a result, they tend to reflect the interest of the winners of those battles.

I have no idea what the outcome of the presidential election will be, but it is probably a good idea for analysts to start interrogating their assumptions about the constitution (and other important matters). After all, even if there is a new constitution, it may very well look a lot like the old one.

This article originally appeared at, an Atlantic partner site.