President Mohamed Morsi was under growing pressure Tuesday to offer political concessions, facing a Wednesday deadline set by Egypt’s powerful military, a phone call from President Obama urging him to be responsive and an announcement by the Islamist Nour party that it supports both the army’s threat of intervention and a call by protesters for early elections.
Add to that the growing list of resignations from Morsi’s cabinet and it seems Morsi’s time is running out.
A CNN report earlier in the day suggested the United States was urging Morsi to call for early elections, but the White House’s public comments stopped short of that. (A readout of the call between the president and Morsi suggests a more hands-off approach: President Obama encouraged Morsi “to take steps to show that he is responsive to their concerns, and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process. As he has said since the revolution, President Obama reiterated that only Egyptians can make the decisions that will determine their future.”)
According to the readout, Obama told Morsi “that democracy is about more than elections.” Obama should take his own advice and not repeat the error of so warmly embracing Morsi. Elections are one thing, but for the stability of the United States, Israel and our other allies, economic progress and a shift away from Islamist rule would seem to be more pressing concerns. The part of democracy to which the president was referring (respect for minority rights, a free press, functioning parties) takes a while to develop.
As it was when Hosni Mubarak fell, the Egyptian military (generally regarded as the most stable part of the equation there) holds many of the cards. It may not want the responsibility of rule once again, but it may be the only realistic alternative in the short run to abject chaos and civil war. The Associated Press reports:
Egypt’s military has drawn up a plan to suspend the Islamist-backed constitution, dissolve the Islamist-dominated legislature and set up an interim administration headed by the country’s chief justice if President Mohammed Morsi fails to reach a solution with his opponents by the end of a Wednesday deadline, the state news agency reported.
The report Tuesday provided the first details on the road map that the military has said it will implement if Morsi fails to meet its ultimatum, as millions of protesters returned to the streets for the third straight day in their drive to force the Islamist president out of office.
That might be the best of all options as we may be coming full circle. Mubarak fell in protests over economic failure and political repression, which was followed by military rule making way for elections that brought to power Morsi — who now may need to give way to the military.
The administration would be wise to push for an option that does not trade one Islamist for another, but it may soon find that a military coup that rids the country of an Islamist constitution doesn’t look so bad. The underlying question remains: Is there a political force that can fix the economy, command political legitimacy and function with a modicum of respect for human rights and religious minorities? The jury is still out; the civil institutions and party apparatus of secular groups are in their infancy. In the meantime, we should worry less about the identity of the government that follows Morsi and more about its conduct.