Deal Or No Deal?
By Jess HillJune 22, 2012
They’ve been adversaries for 60 years, but there’s never been this much at stake. Can the Muslim Brotherhood strike a power-sharing deal with Egypt’s military rulers, or will it be pushed towards a public confrontation?
It's got to be one of the most naked power grabs of the 21st century. In the past week, Egypt's first freely elected parliament was dissolved by a court order, its ruling generals granted themselves sweeping legislative powers (including immunity from oversight), and the presidency was virtually stripped of authority. No matter who becomes Egypt's next president, the generals will be in charge.
There's only one question now: can the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] agree to a limited power-sharing agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has claimed victory for its candidate Mohammed Morsi, or will it strip the Brotherhood of electoral power completely, and draw it into a public showdown?
As Egyptians anxiously await the official results, the military is mobilising. Tanks and armoured vehicles have been seen congregating just outside Cairo, in strategic locations that were used to prevent people entering the capital during the early days of the uprising last January.
The anxiety in Cairo is palpable. Despite the Muslim Brotherhood producing tallied results to verify its count, Egypt's former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq, a military man who is widely viewed as the SCAF's preferred candidate, is also claiming victory. The official result was due to be announced on June 21 but has been delayed due to allegations of voter fraud. Few believe that's the true holdup, though; one popular theory is that the announcement is being delayed until the weekend, so Egypt's imams can't use Friday prayers to mobilise their faithful into the streets. Of course, only a handful of Egyptians have a clue about what's really going on, and they're not telling. But if Shafiq is declared president, there's a good chance the public reaction would be sudden, angry, and potentially violent.
"I think that what we're watching right now is pact making," says Egypt analyst Joshua Stacher, a professor at Kent State University in Egypt as an official election monitor with the Carter Center. "They're feeling each other out and trying to see where the negotiations can actually happen. Not to be too simplistic or reductionist, but I think [the Brotherhood is] going to be told, 'Do you want the presidency, or do you want the parliament? Neither are going to have any power — but you can have something.'"
On the night of June 21, as thousands of Morsi supporters gathered in Tahrir Square, one-time presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted, "I urged SCAF & Muslim Brotherhood on the immediate need for mediation to avoid explosion. Time to act is now."
But clearly a negotiated settlement is still forthcoming. The Muslim Brotherhood and the ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party have called for a 'Return of Legitimacy' demonstration in Tahrir Square, and other parts of the country, on June 22. The Brotherhood may be using the street as a bargaining chip, but if it's forced to prolong this tactic, it could actually end up playing into the military's hands. "Is this society ready for another 18-day uprising? People will hit the roof," says Stacher. "This is something the Brothers are going to have trouble with. Every time they go to the street, not only are they [being portrayed by state media as] crazy Islamists who want to have an Islamic state and cut people's heads off and make women go into the house, but now they're also screwing up the economy, they're scaring tourists, they're making things dirty."
Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, says this is just the latest round in a decades-long tug of war between Egypt's two most powerful forces. "The Brothers and the authorities have been in an on-again, off-again relationship since the 1930s," he says. "Of course, the question is now: is this old married couple still talking behind the scenes while spatting in public, or have all communications been broken? Are they now in a dangerous confrontation?"
And if they are, just how hard are both sides prepared to push?
IN TIMES OF GREAT UPHEAVAL, A FAMILIAR ADVERSARY can become one's greatest ally. That's what the Muslim Brotherhood became for Egypt's ruling elite in February last year. "The process of incorporating the Brotherhood started when Mubarak was still in power," says Joshua Stacher. "On February 6, Morsi was in the room with [former vice-president] Omar Suleiman for the National Dialogue. The reason the Brotherhood was there was it represented everything the revolutionaries weren't: they were an orderly, disciplined faction, structured along the same lines as Egypt's traditional power hierarchies."
It was this very meeting that compelled one of the Brotherhood's most senior members, Mohammed Habib, to quit the organisation. "I begged them not to do it," Habib, the former deputy supreme guide, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "I said it would be a cause of shame to the organisation, since Suleiman [wanted] to split the unity of the revolutionary forces."
Habib says that in the months that followed, the Brotherhood continued to make clandestine deals with the SCAF and refused to join with peaceful demonstrators, or come to their aid when they were attacked by security forces. He says it was this alliance, between two factions with the same authoritative culture and structure, which prevented the revolution from achieving its goals.
"The Brotherhood is basically a mirror image of the state — it's a very Egyptian institution," explains Stacher. "The problems that exist in Egyptian society — class issues, hierarchy are also reflected inside the Muslim Brotherhood." By supporting the revolutionary movement, which wants to challenge social hierarchies, the Brotherhood would be endangering its own power structure. "The real challenge [in the first few months] was not about democracy or about authoritarianism," says Stacher, "it was about holding up [Egypt's] centralised social hierarchy."
But like most adversarial alliances, this one is fatally flawed. The two factions are fundamentally incompatible, says Springborg: the Egyptian ruling military council considers itself the custodian of the nation, and it holds the politically ambitious Brotherhood in contempt. "[The Egyptian military] has an incredibly expansive notion of their own competence and their right to rule — much more than other Arab militaries that I've dealt with," he says. "They think that they have run the country since 1952, and that if they didn't run it, the country would be in great jeopardy. The officer corps is to be found in local government, throughout the executive branch — they're everywhere. They look upon themselves as the backbone of the state."
According to Springborg, members of the SCAF and the senior officer corps regard members of the Brotherhood as ignorant, ill-educated, presumptuous and dangerous. "Those two things together are a lethal brew: this sense of a right to rule, along with a contemptuous attitude towards those who are challenging them now."
Contrary to popular opinion, Springborg doesn't believe the SCAF's blatant power grab is driven purely by self-interest. "If it were, it might be more shrewd and calculating. But there is an ideological dimension that causes them to believe that they have to do this for the good of the nation, and that the nation will support them."
Many Egyptians fault the Brotherhood for overreaching, specifically for trying to control the constitutional assembly and breaking its promise not to run a presidential candidate. But would a more conservative approach have made any difference? "The Brothers were never really fully in charge of their own destiny, and I think that if they haven't realised that yet, that's what they will come to realise," says Stacher.
Certainly, there's a sense that the Brotherhood are picking their battles. On the issue of the dissolved parliament, the Brotherhood has basically surrendered. Stacher says he was with a Brotherhood parliamentarian shortly after the announcement. When he asked him how he felt, the former MP said they respected the courts, and thought the SCAF was neutral. "I was like, 'You can't possibly think this.' And he said, 'Look, we do. The most important thing is that we don't go back to the dark days.'"
On June 20, Saad El-Katatni, the Brotherhood's speaker in the former parliament, told Reuters that the group would fight against the military's expanded powers via "a legal struggle with the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets." A Shafiq win, he said, was a "hypothesis that does not exist".
But even if Mohammed Morsi does win the presidency, he may not be in the chair for long. Sameh Ashour, the head of the council advising the SCAF, recently told Al Jazeera, "The upcoming president will occupy the office for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees. This is simply because a new constitution will be drafted, followed by new parliamentary elections to take on the legislative power; therefore it is not possible in any event for the president to remain in office after a new constitution comes to the light."
"Unfortunately this old adage — If you really want to have a revolution, you have to cut the heads off — is playing out here," says Stacher. "Because if you leave them to stay around, they will start acting just like they were. You have to cleanse these organisations and rebuild. But this is a difficult thing to do, because if you clean out your judiciaries, what do you do tomorrow?"
Short of bringing Egypt's institutions to their knees, it's hard to imagine anything tipping the power balance out of the military's favour. In this period of public and private squabbling, an old Afghan proverb comes to mind: "You have the watches, we have the time." For now, the ball is squarely in the army's court.