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A new Egypt must learn political compromise

Egyptian protesters shout slogans against President Mohammed Morsy's decree during a demonstration in Tahrir Square.

Story highlights

  • Jane Harman: Egypt's opposition, governing party planned dueling million-man marches
  • She says this Egyptian model of neither working in the system nor compromising isn't useful
  • She says Morsy court takeover, fractious constitutional process show poor grasp of politics
  • Harman: Constitution must respect separation of powers; secularists must get in process

I see your million-man march and raise you another million. That's the game the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition parties were playing in Egypt this week.

After President Mohammed Morsy granted himself sweeping new temporary emergency powers, his opponents vowed to send a million protestors to the streets yesterday. Morsy's supporters responded by announcing their own equally massive gathering.

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and a deal was struck between Morsy and Egypt's judges, who had threatened a countrywide strike. But too often, the "winner-takes-all" Mubarak model persists in Egyptian politics. Instead of engaging or working within the system, and compromising, opposition forces protest in Tahrir Square or boycott. While these tactics won a revolution, they will not build a democracy.

Jane Harman

Morsy's government won worldwide acclaim last week when it achieved two enormously impressive victories (albeit with no input from the so-called secular liberal parties): a ceasefire in Gaza and a commitment of $4.8 billion from the International Monetary Fund, with billions from the European Union to follow.

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But a day later, claiming that the work product of the country's 100-member Constitutional Assembly could be jeopardized, Morsy suspended the ability of the independent court system to review or block the draft constitution, which is due to be released in less than two weeks. A plebiscite is to follow in 60 days and then an election of the new parliament (the old one was declared invalid by the now-neutered court system).

    What to make of all this? It's the politics, stupid, or the absence of capacity on both sides to entertain opposing views and forge compromise. (Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" may be the most relevant and compelling how-to guide this season.)

    Last week, during my third trip to Egypt this year, I suggested to the secretary general and a leading member of the Constitutional Assembly that they reach out to a group, nominally led by former Arab League director and former presidential candidate Amr Moussa, who is now boycotting the process. I made the same suggestion to top aides to Morsy. They are suspicious that Moussa has political motives. But, hey, of course he does! As do they.

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    To be legitimate, Egypt's new constitution will need to respect the separation of powers (including an independent judiciary) and accommodate political differences in a document that passes the international smell test. It cannot move women back to the Stone Age, and it must embrace pluralism and tolerance for all religions.

    On the other side, liberals and human rights advocates want to play odds that this government will overreach and fail. Well, it might. But that's no guarantee they'll come next, especially if they don't bring good political skills with them. And their outside game shortchanges the Egyptian people, whose need for food, jobs, fairness and respect are now.

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    The secular liberals need to get in the game, not just into Tahrir Square. If they do, they can insist on amendments to the constitutional draft that will incorporate their own vision for the future of Egypt.

    More million-man (and woman) marches aren't enough.

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