Egypt's instability casts doubt on regional Islamist ambitions

Legitimacy comes from being able to create an inclusive political order, not from a desire to stifle political action with religious doctrine.

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As unrest continues to rock Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi must have a good sense of what his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, felt two years ago, when he faced protests against his rule. Anything Mr Morsi does these days, it seems, is destined only to provoke new outbreaks of violence and fresh calls for his departure.

This situation raises interesting questions about the certainty of Islamist regimes dominating countries in the Middle East. What we are seeing in Egypt, which has often been at the vanguard of political change in the region, is that there is a treacherous phase after revolutions that can alter the narrative prevailing when the ancien regime falls. After all, the overthrow of King Farouk in 1952 was hailed as a grand democratic moment in Egypt's history. Yet within a few years, the country was led by a military dictatorship.

Mr Morsi appears to be facing two major problems: Egyptians have yet to digest his grab for power last November, when he declared that his decisions were not subject to judicial review. Many Egyptians saw this as an effort by the president to accumulate unchallenged authority. And the situation was little helped when Mr Morsi moved ahead with the approval of a draft constitution soon thereafter, without addressing the fears of the document's critics.

This behaviour was compounded by another of the president's actions. Since coming to power, Mr Morsi has ceded much autonomy to the armed forces and security forces, whose commitment to the revolution many Egyptians doubt, in exchange for imposing his will. The security forces are especially unpopular, and have repressed demonstrations in the Suez Canal area in recent days, as well as in Cairo. As for the armed forces, they have long tried to hijack the revolution. While they are respected, they are not entirely trusted.

The true test of success for revolutions like the one in Egypt is whether the institutions of repression are placed under the control of democratically elected civilians, and whether commanders can be held accountable. That has not happened in Egypt, where the new constitution gives considerable autonomy to the armed forces. Nor has the post-Mubarak order affected the security forces, as Mr Morsi has been unable even to appoint a new interior minister, who controls the security forces, from outside the ministry cadre.

There seem to be several Egypts coexisting uneasily today. There are the institutions of repression, holdovers from the days of Mubarak; there is the state's political apparatus, led by Mr Morsi; there are the adversaries of the president; and there is, over and above all, the general Egyptian population. Egyptians have very different, often clashing, loyalties and await tangible gains from their revolution. The cacophonic interaction of these groups prevents a consensus from emerging to push Egypt forward.

The notion that Mr Morsi is an Islamist who will try to impose an Islamist agenda on this cauldron is far too simplistic. He has tried, first, to consolidate his shaky rule. What Egyptians want more than anything is to enter into a postrevolutionary phase, in which their aspirations are met. This is easier said than done. Mr Morsi has made many mistakes in the last three months, but he is as eager as most of his countrymen to be rid of the legacy of the Mubarak era.

The president's difficulty is that he needs real power to effect change. But this involves relying on the security bodies and the types of decisions that made Mr Mubarak so hated. For instance, Mr Morsi declared a state of emergency in Port Said, Ismailiyya and Suez after rioting that followed the decision to sentence to death 21 football fans from Port Said accused of being responsible for the deaths of Al Ahly supporters at a match last year.

This created a perfect storm of resentment. Here was Mr Morsi, who had declared himself unbound by judicial review, and who had been unable to punish the security forces for what they did during the revolution, overseeing a judiciary prepared to execute football fans from Port Said, and falling back on a Mubarak-era practice and in particular the state of emergency, which Egyptians had thought they were done with.

Making matters worse, the president has not moved decisively to tackle the country's economic woes. The International Monetary Fund intends to lend $4.8 billion (Dh17.6 billion) to Egypt, but the government has delayed this process until next month. Part of the problem is that Mr Morsi is unwilling to implement tax increases on Egyptians, which are essential for the IMF loan to go through. The president is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't. Meanwhile, with foreign reserves down to $15 billion (Dh55 billion), an agreement is needed quickly.

For those worried about what the Arab revolutions will bring, Egypt is instructive. It shows that the ideological agendas of the victors will often be battered by popular expectations. Mr Morsi won the most votes last June. Yet this backing has evaporated as the president has failed to unite Egyptians and take them into a post-Mubarak phase.

Islamists will have to absorb this message. The priority of Arab societies, from Egypt to Tunisia, from Libya to Syria, is to create prosperous, open societies. Islam is greatly valued, but it is not the bedrock of the social and political contract in most of the countries that have been through upheavals in the past two years. To replace one source of legitimacy, the people, by another, the Quran, is not what Tunisians, Egyptians, Libyans or Syrians fought for.

As Egypt shows, Islamists are viewed as natural allies against dictatorial regimes. But legitimacy comes from the ability to create an inclusive political order that does away with the past, not from a desire to stifle rediscovered political action with religious doctrine. That debate is one society can have later, freely, without intimidation.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling