Editor's note: Nader Hashemi is director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is the author of "Islam, Secularism and Liberal Democracy: Toward a Democratic Theory for Muslim Societies." The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nader Hashemi.
By Nader Hashemi, Special to CNN
Egypt suffered a political earthquake Thursday when the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court effectively dissolved the democratically elected parliament and ruled that Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister can remain a presidential candidate.
These events have been widely interpreted as a “judicial coup,” the start of a “counter-revolution” and “the end of Egypt’s Arab Spring.”
While the situation is still in flux and the future is unknown, there is one claim can be made with certainty: this is a naked power grab by the country’s ruling military.
The situation confirms Ellis Goldberg’s prescient observation last year, when the political scientist said what we are witnessing in Egypt is “Mubarakism without Mubarak.” In other words, the “deep military state” remains in firm control despite its feigned commitment to civilian rule; the only real difference is that Mubarak and his family are no longer in power.
The timing of these events is noteworthy. On the eve of a national election that would likely give the Muslim Brotherhood control of both the presidency and the parliament, remnants of the old order, fearing an irreversible loss of power, have made a bold calculation that the time to halt Egypt’s democratic transition is now. Martial law has been announced, and Mubarak’s generals have now assumed full legislative authority. A new constitutional assembly will be hand-picked by General Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his colleagues.
The ball is now in the court of the opposition, principally the Muslim Brotherhood. How will they respond to this dramatic turn of events? The answer to this question will determine the political trajectory of Egypt for the foreseeable future.
The initial reaction of the Muslim Brotherhood has been one of cautious acceptance. Presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi told Egyptian TV that "I respect the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court in that I respect the institutions of the state and the principle of separation of powers.” In a later speech at a campaign rally, however, he sounded more defiant: “A minority is trying to corrupt the nation and take us back. We will go to the ballot box to say no to those failures, [to] those criminals.”
In a nutshell, this seems to be the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood: to encourage people to vote in large numbers and to peacefully work within the framework of the military-controlled legal system to advance political change.
The likelihood of success for this approach is minimal. All struggles for democracy boil down to a struggle for power. Political battles have to be waged and won based on a careful plan that maximizes resources and capabilities. Timing is important, and opportunities can be lost that will not emerge again.
In the context of Egypt, the power is now with an older order that has considerable financial resources and the instruments of state repression on its side. There is also a vast network of millions of people in various ministries employed by the Mubarak regime for security and intelligence work.
On the other side is the opposition, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood but also new organized groups of liberal Islamists, secular nationalists, socialists and liberals. Their power lies mainly in their ideas, their vision for a post-Mubarak democratic society, and, critically, in the power of the street. The moral force of global public opinion augments this power, aided by the Internet, social media and satellite technology.
Alone, the Muslim Brotherhood and its cautious strategy of winning electoral contests cannot win the battle against the military. There is too much at stake in terms of preserving political power, economic investments and the careers and livelihoods of millions of people who are deeply invested in preventing a structural transformation of power. A new strategy is needed.
Learning from the playbook of Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist Ennahda party would be instructive. A broad coalition of opposition groups — religious, secular and those in-between — came together to guide Tunisia to a democratic transition. They stood firm against remnants of the old order who similarly tried to block or slow down the pace of political change.
This strategy — of coalition building, developing a set of common principles for the transition period and abiding by them — has proved successful not only for Tunisia, but also in many other transitions from authoritarian rule.
If the Muslim Brotherhood wants to effectively respond to recent events in Egypt, its leaders have to adopt a new political strategy that breaks from the insularity and ideological rigidity of its past and embraces the more inclusive approach of coalition building with other opposition groups. The future of Egypt hangs in the balance.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nader Hashemi.