Monday, June 18, 2012

Islamists, Military on a Collision Course in Egypt

by Rick Moran

Egyptians finished two days of voting on Sunday, the first relatively free election for president in their history. But indications are that only about 15% of Egypt’s 50 million eligible voters bothered to cast ballots. The low turnout was a direct result of a Supreme Court decision on Thursday that dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament and struck down a law that would have prevented former Mubarak-era prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, from running for president. The twin blows caught the Muslim Brotherhood flat footed as the military moved incredibly swiftly to seize legislative power and will now issue a “constitutional declaration” that defines the powers of the president in the absence of a new constitution. This forces the Muslim Brotherhood to make a choice: Either deal with the military on power sharing or take to the streets and put pressure on the generals to give in to their demands.

While many Egyptians were angry at the “soft coup” pulled off by the military, the actions of the court and military council had the effect of generating enormous cynicism among the population, which now sees the revolution as being overturned by the old regime. We have no choice at all,” said Eid Muhamed, who works in a tea house in Cairo. “Both of them are awful,” he added.

This belief is widespread across Egypt and no doubt contributed to the ennui that has gripped the electorate. Egypt’s political culture, which already sees a “hidden hand” that manipulates events so that they redound in favor of the rich and powerful, seems vindicated in that belief with the actions of the military and especially their allies in the courts. Most judges are Mubarak-era holdovers who are vehemently opposed to democratic change. Ahmed al-Zend, head of the influential Judges Club, representing most of Egypt’s jurists, denounced the parliament and threatened to overturn legislation passed by the elected body. “From this day forward, judges will have a say in determining the future of this country and its fate. We will not leave it to you to do with what you want.”

Some observers wonder whether the Muslim Brotherhood didn’t blow their chance at presiding over a transition to democracy in Egypt. Although there is no evidence, it was widely believed that the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, struck a deal with the military on the election. Regardless of whether that’s true, many Egyptians believe that the Muslim Brotherhood overreached and tried to acquire too much power, too quickly. The resulting backlash hurt Morsi’s vote total in the first round of presidential voting last month, and may have affected the sympathy of voters who look upon the court’s action in dissolving parliament not as unfavorably as one might expect.

What then, do the Egyptian people want, if not a transition to democracy? The political chaos and demonstrations of the previous 16 months have not worn well on most ordinary Egyptians who have seen food become scarce, the economy near collapse, and their personal security threatened by gangs of thugs who have taken advantage of the lapse in police protection to terrify neighborhoods. “We have no security. Every day there are attacks against people in the neighborhood, and there are absolutely no police, no one to turn to for help,” said Hajja Fatma, a woman from a poor Cairo neighborhood. “They hurt old people, rob homes, and kidnap children for ransom. Allah, Allah, we need order,” she added.

Many observers are saying that the military council ruling Egypt has already won the presidential race. That’s because no matter who is elected, they will have to serve under a parliament elected by rules set down by the military, act under a constitution that will be drawn up by an assembly that will probably be appointed by the military, and would likely be constrained to act by laws approved by the military.

The military council took another step to augment their power by issuing a constitutional decree that the Washington Post reports “gave the armed forces vast powers and appeared to give the presidency a subservient role.”

The declaration, published in the official state gazette, establishes that the president will have no control over the military’s budget or leadership and will not be authorized to declare war without the consent of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The document said the military would soon appoint a body to draft a new constitution, which would be put to a public referendum within three months. Once a new charter is in place, an election will be held to chose a parliament that will replace the Islamist-dominated one dissolved Thursday by the country’s top court.

The Muslim Brothers, who were caught by surprise when the court destroyed their power base by dissolving parliament, appear to be regaining their equilibrium. After the polls closed Sunday night, the Brotherhood announced that it had rejected the court order dissolving parliament, calling it a “coup against the entire democratic process.” They also rejected the constitutional decree and vowed that the constituent assembly they appointed in parliament last week to create the new constitution will write the new charter, not the generals.

This would seem to put the two power centers of Egyptian politics on a collision course. But the Islamists have struck deals with the military previously, and it is possible they will accede to the new order as long as Morsi is declared the winner of the election and new rules governing the election of members of parliament don’t shut them out of power. For their part, the generals might accept sharing power with the Brotherhood as long as they maintain their independence from government — much like the Pakistani generals enjoy in that country.

The military is gambling that the kind of massive protests that upended the Mubarak regime will not rematerialize, and that whatever unrest occurs can be handled. The Brotherhood may also realize this, which is why it may reluctantly make the deal and bide time until another opportunity presents itself. But the push to institute sharia law — slowly in the case of the Brotherhood but much more quickly as the salafis desire — might throw any arrangement between the two sides out the window.

It is thought that the generals acted because they feared an Islamist takeover of government with the election of Morsi, and a loss of their power and prerogatives. Marc Lynch (“Abu Aardvark”) put it this way:

The SCAF likely believes that a renewal of massive, sustained protest is no longer in the cards through a combination of its own repression and relentless propaganda, along with the strategic mistakes by protestors themselves. It doesn’t feel threatened by a few thousand isolated protestors in Tahrir, and probably is gambling that they won’t be joined by the masses that made the Jan. 25 revolution last year. They may also feel that the intense rifts of suspicion and rage dividing the Muslim Brotherhood from non-Islamist political trends are now so deep that they won’t be able to cooperate effectively to respond. Or they may feel that the MB would rather cut a deal, even now, than take it to the next level. They may be right, they may be wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on stability.

Early returns show Mohammed Morsi with the lead, but millions of votes still need to be counted. The tally won’t be “official” for a few days, but any result that gives the election to Ahmed Shafiq will likely be seen as illegitimate by the majority of Egyptians, despite most of them desiring the stability and law and order promised by the ex-prime minister. If Morsi wins, the Brotherhood will have a decision to make regarding whether they will accept a presidency with limited powers, and literally under the thumb of the generals, or whether they will contest the military council’s actions in the streets.

Whatever they decide, stability for a nation riven by divisions along political and religious lines will prove elusive.

Rick Moran


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