TRUDY RUBIN: A standoff in Egypt, with economy also in limbo

It isn’t easy being a senior lawyer for Egypt’s deposed president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi.

A respected jurist and former member of Egypt’s upper house of parliament, Mohamad Tosson was clearly frustrated as he talked to me over tea in a dim hotel lobby. He has been permitted to see Morsi only once since the military ousted and jailed him in July, after huge anti-Morsi demonstrations. “His lawyers need to discuss the case with him, but they don’t allow it,” he told me. “They don’t permit him family visits, or even to see his son.”

“They” means the military. Despite the fact that most of the Brotherhood’s leaders, along with thousands of followers, have been jailed, the generals and the Islamist group remain in a tense standoff.

The group retains much grassroots support in rural areas of Egypt, where it has long provided free social services.

“The military understands that the Brotherhood cannot be forced out of existence by force,” says Ashraf el-Sherif, an expert on Islamist movements at the American University of Cairo. “Sooner or later the military will make a deal. The question is the terms.”

Needless to say, Brotherhood lawyer Tosson has a different perspective. He concedes that Morsi made big mistakes – for example, in trying to undermine the judiciary and – for one key period – declaring himself above the constitution.

Tosson insists the question is one of political legitimacy, which belongs to Morsi because he was elected.

There is also a huge element of self-denial in his and the Brotherhood’s insistence that the numbers marching in massive anti-Morsi demonstrations of June 30 were only a small fraction the millions claimed by organizers and observers.

“This was not true,” he insists.

With the Brotherhood and the military both playing for time, Egypt’s politics and economy are stuck in the middle. “As time moves on,” Sherif says, “the cost of reconciliation gets higher.”

“The Brotherhood feels it can delegitimize the system and cause trouble,” said Sherif, thereby causing instability that undercuts tourism and investment. On the other hand, the military is betting it can squeeze the Brotherhood to accept its terms.

Ex-parliamentarian Anwar el-Sadat, nephew of the former president, has tried to start behind-the-scenes negotiations to find a compromise. “We all understand we can’t live without them, but the timing is important – how to do it when the people are angry (at the Brotherhood).” So far, neither military nor Brothers seem ready.

Some leading Egyptians think the country can muddle through whether or not the Brotherhood comes around.

“This is not the time for political Islam,” said Egypt’s elegant diplomat Amr Moussa, former Arab League head and chair of the 50-person committee that just drafted a constitution.

Now, said Moussa, Egypt is embarking on a new round of elections and the Brotherhood’s front Freedom and Justice Party should be able to run if it “stops violence and provocations, and trying to paralyze society. Otherwise society itself will reject them.”

In that case, he added, “We will live with it, and they will just be a pain in the neck.”

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to her at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, PA. 19101, or by email at trubinphillynews.com.