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By Barry Rubin
Well, what do you know? The two leading politicians in Egypt have decided—though they haven’t quite admitted it straight out—that the biggest threat to the country is…the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power. After we’ve been told by virtually every Western government official, academic, and journalist who has discussed the topic, that the Brotherhood is weak, pacifistic, and moderate, those on the scene don’t think so.
The issue now is a March 19 referendum on the constitutional changes proposed by a small army-appointed panel. The panel was headed by a man considered sympathetic to the Brotherhood and included at least one Brotherhood supporter. To be fair, however, it also included some respected independent jurists, too.
In fact, the constitutional amendments produced by this group are quite reasonable. Basically, they boil down to two items: stop the president from being too strong and ensure that elections are fair. This makes perfect sense. I haven’t found anything objectionable in any of the amendments proposed.
Why, then, have both the main presidential candidates—Muhammad ElBaradei and Amr Moussa—called on the Egyptian people to vote against the amendments? Well, if you want to be president presumably you don’t want to see your future powers reduced.
But the main reason is that they perceive events are moving too fast. They know that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only really organized political force in the country. If the election happens too soon, they fear that the Brotherhood will be too strong.
Indeed, the Brotherhood is campaigning for the amendments, at times arguing—according to some of its leaflets—that those against the proposals want to stop Egypt from being an Islamic state.
Yet there is a paradox here that isn’t easily explained. The presidential elections are coming first, not the parliamentary ones. The Brotherhood is organizing its party but will not run a presidential candidate. Indeed, they are going—unless this quarrel over the amendments gets to be too heated—to back ElBaradei.
Presumably, the answer is that ElBaradei is getting scared of being too dependent on the Brotherhood. He has all the liberal reformists behind him and perhaps they are trying to wean their candidate away from relying on the Islamists.
ElBaradei has now called the proposed changes a "dictator's constitution" which is a blatant falsehood, hinting at his demagogic abilities. The plan is to adopt these changes to prepare for elections, then have a presidential election, then a parliamentary one, and then write a new constitution. ElBaradei knows that this is a temporary fix in order to set the ground rules for the election and that everyone knows it will be changed later. Meanwhile, the Facebook crowd is mobilizing for demonstrations against the revisions.
At any rate, things are getting messy. If Egyptians vote for the amendments—and they are going to be quite appealing to the public as insurance against a future dictatorship—then the liberals and nationalists will be unhappy. Yet by going against presumably popular changes, that they’ve been demanding, these two forces are going to confuse a lot of people and let the Brotherhood play the “good guy.”
And if the amendments fail, the revolution has failed its first political test. What will the army junta do next? Speaking of the army, it has lost some of its prestige with the public by suppressing some demonstrations. Christians are charging that those killed in demonstrations opposing the razing of a church were killed by army bullets.
In addition, it is clear that there are plenty of nationalists and pro-Islamists in the army but very few Facebook-using liberal democrats.
Remember that the idea has been to get the military out of power as quickly as possible. The general thinking has been that presidential elections will be held in or before September, when the current presidential term ends. So what date do ElBaradei and Moussa want?
The vote could go either way but there’s no good way this can end.
PS: Note that Turkey recently faced a somewhat, but not altogether, similar situation. The stealth Islamist regime proposed a number of constitutional amendments that were largely good, increasing civil and human rights. Buried within them, however, were provisions strengthening that regime in dangerous ways. The secularist liberals campaigned somewhat against the changes but were soundly defeated.