Rival protesters clashed in Cairo Wednesday, as tensions continued to escalate over President Mohammed Morsi’s powers and a new constitution.
Tarek Masoud, a professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, says the cleavages between liberals and Islamists run deep in Egyptian society, and that even deep concessions by Morsi to his opponents would not bridge the divide.
“Let’s say [Morsi] conceded to every one one of those demands. Well then you could imagine that his hardcore supporters, including Salafists who may even believe that the current constitution isn’t Islamic enough, they’re going to be very disappointed,” says Masoud. “And we’ve already seen dark hints from some quarters of assassinations or violence that they would take part in if this constitution didn’t pass.”
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Marco Werman: Tarek Masoud is a professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. He says from the Muslim Brotherhood’s point of view the protestors in Cairo are trying to turn back the will of the Egyptian people.
Tarek Masoud: They say for decades liberals have always questioned our Islamist commitment to democracy, and so we have tried desperately to show that we’re committed to democracy. We’ve run in elections and we’ve won elections, and now suddenly democracy isn’t good enough for you.
Masoud: So that’s how they are framing this. Of course it’s incorrect and of course what they’re not realizing is that democracy is valuable only in as much it provides guarantees of liberty for everybody, not just those in the majority.
Werman: It’s hard to know what President Morsi is thinking right now, aside from how many more Muslim Brotherhood members can he get out into Tahrir Square to counter the numbers of opposition, but how long can the president continue to wait this out and resist making concessions?
Masoud: It’s not clear that President Morsi is yet willing to or ready to compromise with his opposition. It really looks like the game that he wants to play is a show of strength on the streets. This was also the game that Mubarak played in the famed battle of the camel, where Mubarak allies brought out thugs to beat up protestors during the revolution in 2011. And that was really the moment where Mubarak lost any residual legitimacy he may have had. And so the worry is that this happening now with the Muslim Brotherhood playing the role of the old MVP could have a similar legitimacy breaking effect.
Werman: Now, you’ve written, Tarek Masoud, that a greater percentage of Americans were literate during the Civil War than Egyptians are today. Are less literate Egyptians, I gather a group mostly in the countryside, do they support President Morsi? Are they behind him?
Masoud: The illiteracy rate in Egypt is about 35%. Egypt is also a pretty poor country. I mean you would have to go back to the Spanish-American War to find a similar level of income, average income, in the United States that Egypt has now. So the odds of getting a kind of liberal democracy in Egypt were always very long. Regardless of who takes over, whether it was Islamists or Mohammed Morsi’s opponent in the presidential election was an old Mubarak crony, whoever kind of comes to power is going to face this society in which the vast majority of people tend to be pretty acquiescent to authority and in which the capacity of the society to constantly produce challenges to regimes that overstep their authority is limited. So I don’t know if the vast countryside supports Mohammed Morsi or is merely indifferent to him, but the fact is that the phenomenon that we’re observing now, which are these protests, are largely urban. And Egypt is still a majority rule country.
Werman: Is there any constructive role Washington might play in this as far as you can see?
Masoud: Washington could put pressure on Mohammed Morsi to make some concessions, but I really see the obstacles being much bigger than what the United States can influence. I mean this is a cleavage between liberals and Islamists that is very deep. And even if somehow Egyptians get past this immediate hurdle, I don’t see this cleavage going away. And let me just give you an example. Let’s say Mohammed Morsi tomorrow came out and conceded to every single one of the demands that the liberals are making and they happen to be demands that I agree with…but let’s say he conceded to every one of those demands. Well then you could imagine that his hardcore supporters, including [inaudible 03:43], who may even believe that the current constitution isn’t Islamic enough, they’re going to be very disappointed. And we’ve already seen [inaudible 03:50] from some quarters of you know, assassinations or violence that they would take part in if this constitution didn’t pass. So my sense is that regardless of how this ends up there are enough extremists on both sides actually to upend any fragile accommodation that Morsi might make were he so inclined.
Werman: Tarek Masoud, with Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, thank you very much for your time.
Masoud: Thank you.
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