One might think President Mohammed Morsi breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the upper house of the Egyptian parliament approved his new electoral law, setting the stage for a prolonged vote to populate its lower house beginning in April.
And certainly, that vote does have promise. But it also bears the potential to further plunge the young democracy into total political upheaval, especially now that the Egyptian military — perhaps the only public institution that still has broad, bipartisan support — is dropping hints that Morsi had better get his house in order or face the threat of some kind of coup. Whether this stems (as some allege) from Morsi seeking the ouster of army chief of staff and defense minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the pressure is nonetheless on the Islamist president’s political party to achieve not just a victory but a mandate sufficient to legitimize his rule among the broader public (and quiet the only group of dissenters who have the muscle to actually imperil his power).
Then again, his Muslim Brotherhood has been the dominant political force on the scene since (and even before) the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, suggesting it’s not just votes Morsi’s party needs, but a palpable sense of increased optimism and faith in his government. After all, the Brotherhood dominated the first round of parliamentary elections last year only to see the outcome thrown out in court after allegations of electoral irregularities. But whereas normally a situation like this one might call for a savvy politician to hug the ideological center and cast as wide a net as possible, Morsi does not have the luxury of that option. Growing tension with his ultraconservative Salafi rivals intensified when one of the group’s senior members resigned from his administration earlier this week, and the president can’t afford too much more bleeding of support among hardliner Islamists. This means he will be hard-pressed to walk the tightrope between modern democratic president who is palatable to liberals and Muslim Brotherhood figurehead who once said some uncouth things about Jews.
Morsi and his movement do have one tool in their arsenal that none of their electoral rivals (including even the military) do: diplomacy. Until now, the president has excelled at maintaining his nation’s tradition of serving as a regional powerbroker, helping diffuse the Israel/Hamas conflict that erupted late last year and boosting his gravitas and international credibility in the process. So far, he has avoided getting too close to the black sheep that is Iran despite receiving a letter recently from many of Ayatollah Khamenei’s top advisers urging he do just that (and that he adopt the nation’s quasi-theocratic regime of government). But foreign policy and the ability to demand attention on the world stage could be an edge for the Egyptian president and by extension his party — and a wildcard for his foes. Of course, whether an international crisis or domestic threat (or some combination of the two) present Morsi with the opportunity to generate a “rally around the flag” effect in the weeks leading up to the vote remains to be seen.
But at this point it’s safe to bet Mohammed Morsi is looking around for an external crisis to draw attention away from the internal one everyone is talking about.