Under pressure from at home and perhaps especially abroad, the new interim government in Egypt announced a timetable for new elections, which will take place after replacing the current constitution that the Muslim Brotherhood pushed through after winning office in the last elections a year ago. The sequence envisions elections by February, after a four-month process of either replacing or significantly amending the constitution and holding a referendum for approval:
Egypt’s interim leadership laid out a fast-track timetable to elect a new president and parliament by early next year, in a move that could ease Western concerns about the future of democracy in the Arab nation but is almost certain to deepen the anger of ousted President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters.
Under the plan put forward by the interim president late Monday, two panels would be appointed to make amendments to the Islamist-backed constitution passed under Morsi’s government. Those changes would be put to a referendum within about 4½ months. Parliamentary elections would be held within two months after that, and once the new parliament convenes it would have a week to set a date for a presidential election.
The swift issuing of the plan reflected a drive on the part of Egypt’s military-backed interim leadership to push ahead with a post-Morsi political plan despite Islamist rejection — and is certain to further outrage the ousted president’s Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamist group contends that Morsi was removed by a coup and that everything that follows is illegal.
The “constitutional declaration” announced by interim President Adly Mansour late on Monday coincided with the nation’s deadliest day since Morsi’s July 3 ouster, with more than 50 of his supporters killed by security forces as the country’s top Muslim cleric raised the specter of civil war.
There had been some questioning whether American aid to the Egyptian military provided any real leverage, since it was unlikely to be cut off in this instance. The White House has been dancing around the definition of a “coup” in order to keep the aid from being cut off under US statute, and so far calls to cut off aid have been a minority in American politics. That’s in part because the aid wasn’t intended to incentivize Egyptian democratization — it started under Anwar Sadat and was maintained all through the Hosni Mubarak regime — but to keep the peace between Israel and Egypt.
Still, it’s a billion-dollars-plus for Egypt, which desperately needs cash, so they can’t discount the possibility of being cut off from it. More importantly, though, the military wants to head off a civil war, which may still result after a deadly clash this weekend. Both sides bitterly claim victimization in the clash at the Republican Guard headquarters after more than 50 people died in the gunfire, but the claims themselves may be secondary to the victimization by now:
The longer this percolates under a military-imposed government, the more momentum will accrue to the Muslim Brotherhood and its followers. The interim government has to know this, which is why they’re anxious to show progress as soon as possible. Having a constitutional referendum in four months is about ambitious a timetable one can imagine under these circumstances.
The timetable doesn’t give the Muslim Brotherhood and its political allies much time to choose whether to participate in electoral politics or sit out and hope that their absence will impact the validity of the results. They should know, however, that this trick rarely works; usually the sitters end up isolated and delegitimized as everyone else moves on from the past. If the military can keep a lid on further outbreaks of violence, the Muslim Brotherhood will have little choice but to participate — which means it will be in their interests to see violence flare up and derail the elections. That’s why the issue of who started the shooting this time will be secondary to whether it starts up again, and who starts the violence in the future.