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Nov 28, 2012 | 18:59 GMT

Making Sense of the Crisis in Egypt

Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court deputy head Maher Samy during a news conference on Nov. 28
-/AFP/Getty Images

The head of Egypt's constituent assembly, Hossam el-Gheriany, announced Nov. 28 that the constitutional draft will be completed today, Reuters reported. According to the report, the assembly will vote on the draft Nov. 29. The Muslim Brotherhood is forcing a showdown with judicial authorities over the constitution in order to pre-empt a potential ruling — expected Dec. 2 — by the Supreme Constitutional Court that would dissolve the constituent assembly and further delay the drafting process.

The Brotherhood is trying to take advantage of a split within the Salafists, its main political opponent, and is under pressure to regain the legislature before its own popular support wanes. It is thus working through the presidency to speed up the constitutional process, clearing the way for parliamentary elections. (Elections cannot be held until a constitution is approved by national referendum.) However, in its haste the Brotherhood has overestimated its own popularity, its opponents' divisions and the government's support within the military. Its approach has sparked a public backlash that could weaken the president and set back the Islamist movement's electoral goals.

The results of the last parliamentary elections, which were held in three stages between November 2011 and January 2012, present a fairly accurate picture of each party's present strength. About 27 million of Egypt's roughly 50 million eligible voters turned out to vote. The Muslim Brotherhood's political branch, the Freedom and Justice Party, received approximately 10.1 million votes; the Al-Nour Party and its Salafist bloc took home about 7.5 million votes; and the rest — including secularists, liberals, youth movements, New Wafd, former National Democratic Party members, leftists, Nasserites and independents — pulled in about 9.3 million votes.

Locator Map - Egypt

Splits in the Salafist Bloc

The results suggest that the Freedom and Justice Party will probably win the majority in a new round of parliamentary polls, and no single party can challenge it at the moment. But the Brotherhood does not want to simply win; it wants to erode the support of its nearest rivals, the Salafists. The Salafists are not a monolith but a collection of several groups, the most prominent and politically relevant of which is the Alexandria-based Salafist Calling and its political arm, the Al-Nour Party.

Al-Nour experienced a leadership crisis from late September to early October, when the clerics of the Salafist Calling had to step in to mediate a deal between warring factions. On one side was Al-Nour President Emad Abdel-Ghafour, who currently serves as an adviser to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. On the other side was Sheikh Yasser Burhami, a powerful cleric and Salafist leader with close ties to the Salafist Calling's Supreme Council.

Though the crisis has been resolved, competition within the group remains. This is an opportunity the Brotherhood hopes to exploit in the next parliamentary poll. Without a parliament, the Salafists have had no forum through which to serve their supporters, some of whom are likely frustrated with the lack of progress. The Brotherhood, which at least controls the presidency, would like to pick up as many of those voters — who tend to be drawn from the lower classes, whereas the Brotherhood is rooted in the middle class — as it can.

Pressure on the Brotherhood

The remaining spectrum of political opposition is not a threat to the Brotherhood unless it can unite. These groups had been unable to join together effectively until Morsi's recent decrees, but it remains to be seen whether they will manage to stay united.

Either way, the Brotherhood needs to regain control of parliament sooner rather than later. The longer Morsi rules, the more likely the Brotherhood's support base will diminish. This is due to several reasons. First, the ongoing political turmoil has only worsened the state of the already strained economy. Second, the government is on a informal deadline to implement economic reforms — especially with regard to energy, fuel and other subsidies — in order to finalize a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Those reforms will likely be widely unpopular and will undercut the Muslim Brotherhood's reputation for promoting a social welfare agenda. As a result, the government will implement the reforms slowly in an effort to limit the political backlash. But it cannot drag out the implementation of the reforms indefinitely. Already it has begun to reduce industrial and bread subsidies. 

The other problem for the Muslim Brotherhood is that Morsi represents Egypt's first experience of Brotherhood governance. The Brotherhood is in a position where it must govern a nation with severe financial and political constraints without the power and tools that control of parliament would bring. Instead, it is being forced to operate through the president. This certainly allows it opportunities to implement some of its policies, but not to the extent it could if it controlled both the executive and the legislature.

The Brotherhood is focused on getting the constitution approved. Essam el-Erian, the vice chairman of the Freedom and Justice Party, said Nov. 28 that Morsi's decrees would be canceled within weeks and replaced by the new constitution. Indeed, Article II of Morsi's Nov. 22 decree states that laws made by the president are final and binding until the constitution is approved and a new lower house is elected.

However, the Brotherhood's urgency to forge ahead with the constitution, even at the risk of more political turmoil, is leading it to miscalculate. Morsi may have overestimated his power after he helped to broker the Gaza cease-fire with the United States. Already it has become clear that the military is not wholly under the control of the Brotherhood and the Morsi government, nor is it willing to step in to serve their interests alone. The Brotherhood's miscalculation also could lead to a weakening of Morsi at a time when the movement needs a strong president to help set it up for the parliamentary elections.

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