Playing a Losing Game of Chicken in Egypt

Nov 23

The problem in Egypt is that there is a giant ultimatum game going on, with the opposition threatening to deny the legitimacy of the constitution by walking out and convincing the SCC to invalidate the CA; well, it turns out that Morsi knows how to deploy a tit-for-tat strategy in the context of an ultimatum game, and people are surprised.  Hmm. 

The opposition says that the CA is not “representative”. But how do we know it is not representative other than based on the fact that its outcome is not to our liking?  Again, I just don’t see how the draft constitution can be accused of being “extremist” or “non-representative” of the values of the median Egyptian.  Now, it may very well be that those views themselves are “extremist,” and what we should ask for is a CA that is not representative of the Egyptian people precisely in order to get the right kind of constitution, but such a constitution would also suffer legitimacy problems.

One thing that I liked in the constitution was that it could not be amended to reduce rights. It seems to me that there was a legitimate attempt to compromise among the various factions that really do exist in Egypt; no amount of wishful thinking will erase the fact that most Egyptians think that cursing prophets is a really bad thing; the vast majority of Egyptians think it’s perfectly fine to censor pornography, or that if freedom of expression requires tolerating pornography, they’d be happy to get rid of freedom of expression.  Moreover, it certainly did not reduce rights relative to the pre-revolution baseline, and it absolutely increased political rights.  It rejected salafi attempts to make the constitution more restrictive of personal freedoms. In short, I just don’t see the argument that this constitution is unreflective of Egyptian values, or so unreflective, that we must have a revolution against the CA.  It certainly maintains the possibility for a more liberal Egypt in the future, and I don’t know why Egypt’s so-called liberals can’t take heart from the possibility that they too might gain an electoral majority in the not so distant future.

As for yesterday’s constitutional declaration, I think the violent reaction against it increases the possibility of actual dictatorship.  People I have talked to said “We brought down Mubarak, we’ll bring down Morsi,” as though there is no difference between the two.  Mubarak was the head of a patronage network, and did not have the benefit of ideological backers. Morsi does, and if I were a betting man, I would suggest that the MB and the Salafis have more ideologically committed backers than those who oppose them.  The opposition will get clobbered in a street fight, if it comes to that, and to make things worse, after the MB and Salafis win that street battle, they will likely make the constitution much worse.

The best move would be to give credible commitments to seeing through  the constitutional drafting process to its conclusion, with all parties making firm declarations that no Egyptian party will recognize the legitimacy of an SCC decision dissolving the CA, and that everyone will accept the result of the popular referendum on the proposed constitution.  Only if it is rejected, will we go back to the drawing board, but if not, we proceed to normal electoral politics and begin trying to solve the country’s problems.

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