Can ElBaradei Keep Egypt Together? Can Anyone?

CAIRO -- So far, there has been only one ironclad rule in post-Morsy Egypt: Don't trust breaking news. Reports that hardline Islamist groups had abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood? Reversed. News that Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie was arrested? Proven false when he appeared at a large Brotherhood rally.

And now: another doozy. On Saturday, the official state news agency reported that opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei would be sworn in as the new prime minister later that evening. A few hours later, however, the decision was reversed as the tenuous political alliance that supported Mohamed Morsy's ouster began to fray. 

Achieving consensus in Egyptian politics is proving easier said than done. With ElBaradei's candidacy for the premiership, the fractures among the diverse political forces that came together to bring down the Muslim Brotherhood are coming to the fore. Whoever emerges as the country's next prime minister will be charged with managing this increasingly unwieldy alliance: He will need all of his skills to keep it together and make the sort of political progress that will justify the turmoil of the past week.   

The hitch in ElBaradei's rise came from the Salafist Nour Party, which abandoned the Muslim Brotherhood by throwing its weight behind the military-guided transition plan. But while the Nour Party had its problems with Morsy, the hardline Islamist movement had no love for the secular ElBaradei. "You criticize the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamists for not sharing in their decision making, but then you do the same thing," a Nour Party official told the Wall Street Journal, in explaining their objection. "This isn't the way of democracy or the way of dealing with a country like Egypt."

It's a compelling point. If the Nour Party drops its support for the transition, as it threatened to do if ElBaradei was appointed, power would fall completely into the hands of a small group of electorally untested, non-Islamist politicians. The anti-Morsy political front would be taking exactly the sort of exclusionary approach to government that they criticized in their Islamist predecessors.

That's not to say all Salafists oppose ElBaradei. "I believe he's the right guy for the right time," said Mohammed Tolba, a founder of the moderate Salafi group Salafyo Costa. "We need someone who's an expert, presentable, who has international relations.... He was one of the guys who called for the revolution. We cannot stand trial and error anymore."

But if Egypt's main Salafist party gets a veto over such central decisions, what can the interim government accomplish? This isn't going to be the last area of contention: In upcoming discussions to amend the country's constitution, the Nour Party is undoubtedly going to fight to preserve, or even strengthen, the role of Islamic law. By trying to please everyone, Egypt's new government runs the risk of accomplishing nothing.

This is the conundrum that ElBaradei, who is still the front-runner to become the next prime minister, will fall into should he actually land the job. While he is viewed as perhaps the most uncompromising liberal voice on Egypt's political scene, ElBaradei's stances have shifted considerably since entering politics. Upon his return in 2010, he allied with the Muslim Brotherhood  -- even clashing with secularist opposition parties in the process. Today, he is the Islamists' public enemy number one, castigating the Morsy administration's governance of the country in an article for Foreign Policy's "Failed States" issue. Following Hosni Mubarak's fall, ElBaradei denounced the military-guided government as a "fascist regime" and resolutely refused to take part. Today, with the premiership in sight, he's justifying the military's arrest of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and the closing of Islamist television channels as "precautionary measures."

ElBaradei, for his part, says that a leader has to be willing to change his positions and cut deals if he wants to be successful. "It's really essentially to accept each other -- to cut a deal, if you like, you have to compromise and reconcile your differences," he told FP shortly before diving into Egyptian politics. "And you have to find the highest common denominator that you can get. You get a lot of that through psychology -- it is not really substance, as you learn. It's really respect and dialogue: These are all skills that you need wherever and whatever you do in public life. Whether you are a CEO of Coca-Cola, whether you are the head of the IAEA, or whether you are the president of a country."

The ability to adapt to political reality while still maintaining your reputation for sticking to your principles isn't a bad trick, either. Whether it's ElBaradei or another figure, Egypt's new prime minister is going to need to call on all of his political skills to navigate the country through its largest crisis since Mubarak's fall.

Evan Hill contributed reporting on this article.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images for Cinema for Peace


The Wikipedia War Over Egypt's 'Coup'

In recent days, the protests and clashes over the Egyptian military's July 3 ouster of President Mohamed Morsy have transpired amid a parallel battle over semantics -- specifically whether the dramatic events of the past week constituted a "coup." Adopting the loaded word has very real implications for everything from the future of Egypt's fledgling democracy to the more than $1 billion in aid Washington sends to Cairo each year. And, as with past international crises, nowhere is the debate fiercer than in the dark netherworld of Wikipedia forums. The heated back-and-forth over the title for the English-language page "2013 Egyptian coup d'état" (at least that was the title at press time) is a case in point.

In arguing for a title change, some Wikipedians have asserted that it's hypocritical to call Egypt's first popular uprising in 2011 a "revolution" and second in 2013 a "coup," given that both required military intervention to realize popular demands for a change in political leadership. "To describe the events which allowed Morsi's rise to power as a 'revolution' but those which led to his downfall as a 'coup' is clearly biased and violates NPOV [Neutral point of view]," one user writes. "A number of the comments by those defending the use of 'coup' in the title and trying to shut down discussion frankly strike me as Wiki-lawyering."

Others have argued that it's biased not to call the overthrow of Morsy a coup: The "military removing the president and installing a new one (even if not military), suspending the constitution and seizing control over various state apparatus, e.g. state TV fits the normal definition of a coup, particularly since there doesn't seem to be anything in the constitution or other legal basis for these actions (to be clear I'm only referring to the legal aspect not the ethical or moral or whatever)," one Wikipedian points out. "It is called by the reliable media a coup d'état,deposing a president especially elected is a coup d'état ,and wikipedia only goes with neutral naming," another notes. "[P]ro-coup politicians always call it a revolution! But I think we should wait some days for the consensus of the medias, Google hits, etc. Then we decide. For the moment coup is the appropriate title," a third adds, a bit more cautiously. (The page also includes a robust discussion about whether major news outlets have been using "coup" without caveats or hedging by putting the word in quotes.)

Some have made more nuanced arguments. "The point is clearly debatable," concedes one user. "According to the strict definition given here this was a coup. However statements from the US and UK governments carefully avoided using the word 'Coup'. Given that US military aid would be at risk if a coup had taken place, coupled with the fact that both the US and UK have refrained from referring to it as a coup we can infer that the word 'coup' is politically very sensitive here and it may be best to avoid using it and use the term 'military intervention' instead as the word used in the US and UK government statements."

And still others have maintained that Egypt is a special case -- one where the standard definition of a coup doesn't apply. "I think it's more accurate to call the page 'Impeachment of Mohamed Morsi' instead of '2013 Egyptian coup d'état,'" one user suggests. "If CNN and BBC call it something, does this mean it has to be the right one? The guy abused his power as president of Egypt so he was replaced by the military with the head of the Constitutional Court as acting president with an early election to be scheduled soon."

Another user echoes this sentiment, explaining, "What's happening in Egypt is untraditional and the word coup has usually been associated with being undemocratic. The untraditional thing about this coup is that it happened following millions of protests that asked for the removal of the president since there was no parliament to vote for his removal or impeachment.... My point is this is, contrary to the usual, a democratic coup due to massive protests or a Revolution."

Then there is the appeal to the wisdom of the crowd -- or to search engine optimization, depending on your reading. "I suggest that the page be renamed something like Egyptian Revolution of 2013," a Wikipedian offers. "More than 31,000 hits on Google News for 'second Egyptian revolution.'"

For what it's worth, the debate isn't limited to English-speaking Wikipedia users. The corresponding Arabic page on Egypt's political upheaval is entitled, "The coup of July 3, 2013 in Egypt." And the first heading under the corresponding discussion frantically reads, "Revolution or Coup?!"

As they say, history is written by the victorious Wikipedia editors.

Marya Hannun is a freelance journalist and Ph.D. student in Georgetown's Islamic Studies program.