Intriguing Egypt

The Tahrir Square youths are out. The political dynamics in Egypt now involve the military and the Muslim Brotherhood.

By Eric Walberg | 2012-10-01 12:00:00

Egypt’s political landscape is beginning to take shape after a year and a half of upheaval following the revolution of January-February 2011. Sadly, it has not been a pretty picture. The police (and security) seemingly disappeared, but arrests of demonstrators by the military police actually increased, the victims dealt with peremptorily in the notorious military courts. Hundreds of protestors were wounded—many blinded—and killed by an unreconstructed police and military, and newly liberated criminals. Meanwhile, trying to keep a lid on things, officials promise the world, but it is hard to believe the pronouncements of any of the leading actors in the unfolding drama, apart from an unapologetic tell-all interview in July in the New York Times boasting of a conspiracy to stop the revolution in its tracks.

Not ElBaradei but the Brothers

Things started out rosily enough, with the army fêted as the savior of the revolution, vowing to hand over power as soon as possible to a popularly elected government, which would write a new constitution, and to a duly elected president before the end of the year. That process was slow to take off: three rounds of elections (plus run-offs) for the lower and upper houses were only completed by January 2012, and presidential elections by June, and no constitution is in sight.

The face of the revolution itself also changed, with the instigators—young liberals and leftists who had mobilized themselves via Facebook—fading into the background as traditional Muslims increasingly joined and supported the more Islam-friendly post-revolutionary environment. Such figures as Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Mussa, internationally recognized liberal politicians, did not represent this new Egypt, which is more visibly pious and mostly too poor to worry about more than their daily bread and shelter. For them, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB, the grassroots Islamist organization founded in 1928, outlawed in 1952 and thereafter forced to operate underground) is the only political force that is trusted and relevant to their needs.

Parliamentary elections brought a two-thirds majority to two Islamist parties, the MB and the more strictly Islamic Salafi. The voters, apparently, had taken to heart the MB electoral slogan of the past 20 years: “Islam is the solution.”

The ruling generals were no more happy about all this than was ex-President Hosni Mubarak—recently tried and found guilty for the deaths of demonstrators—but their actions over the past 16 months have only added to people’s distrust of the old order. Even as they piously promised to hand over authority to elected leaders, the generals were conspiring with the Supreme Constitutional Court’s deputy president, Tahani el-Gebali, to preserve their political power and foil the rise of the Islamists. Gebali later boasted about this conspiracy in a 4 July New York Times article by David Kirkpatrick.

In the run-up to the second round of the presidential election, the generals agreed with Gebali’s proposal—an updated version of an earlier constitutional law which had sparked protests and fatal clashes a year previously. Parliament was thus dissolved, ensuring that the Mubarak-era generals would oversee drafting of the Constitution.

The generals “effectively planted a booby trap in the parliamentary elections” by leaving them vulnerable to annulment by the judiciary, wrote Kirkpatrick. When parliament sought to assert control over the interim military-appointed government, the generals’ hand-picked interim prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, threatened the elected officials with dissolution. The decision “is in the drawers of the constitutional court, and it could be taken out at any time,” Ganzouri warned parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni in March from the floor of parliament. Ganzouri later denied making the threat, despite hundreds of witnesses.

The generals did their best to foil the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to hold on to political power, rejecting its preferred presidential candidate, Khairat El-Shater, at the last minute, on the pretext that it was too soon since his release from prison. This forced the party to submit papers for Mohamed Morsi—their next choice as candidate—in the final hours before applications closed. He faced a furious military, a loudly negative press, and the wrath of both liberal and soft Islamist competitors, but miraculously prevailed.

At Morsi’s swearing-in, he was flanked by grim-faced, medal-chested men in military uniforms. The official photo made the short, stout Morsi look more like a child or mascot—though a defiant one—than the new president. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had executed a de facto coup, the suspension of parliament, only days before the presidential election run-off when they realized Morsi’s majority would be too great to fudge. It was.

Newly elected President Morsi began his historic inauguration speech to the people of Egypt in Tahrir Square (before the official swearing-in in the privacy of the Constitutional Court the next day) by thanking God and the families of the revolution’s martyrs for granting him such a victory. He surprised many with an olive branch to the Brotherhood’s nemesis, saluting the armed forces, though perhaps showing a rare sense of irony by adding, “Only God knows how much love I have in my heart [for them].” David had landed a pebble in the lumbering Goliath’s eye, and then graciously or perhaps sarcastically thanked him for the fight.

By stripping the presidency of most powers before the election, and presenting the incumbent with next year’s budget as a fait accompli, the military were able to “retire,” though Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi initially remained as minister of defence. SCAF did its best to leave the hapless Islamists’ hands tied, ensuring that they would take the brunt of the inevitable economic disaster, given that the Mubarak-era economic system would remain intact.

The Postmodern Coup?

The triumph of the civilian Morsi over the military’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, marks a new style of “postmodern” coup—that is, if worst comes to worst, let the real winner win, but let the courts give you the power. Gone are old-fashioned coups, with military leaders installing themselves as autocrats for life (or until disaster prompted another coup). There has been a modicum of progress.

The generals appear to be using a mixture of the post-1980 Turkish model, the post-1998 Indonesian model, and the 2012 Paraguayan one.

In Turkey, the military used its control of the National Security Council to retain broad power over any elected (Islamist or secular) government in the name of preserving the secular character of the state, giving it time to try to soften up the Islamists and assimilate them into the status quo.

Indonesia’s transition from the Suharto dictatorship—the general himself was forced to resign in 1998 after widespread rioting—led to parliamentary elections and the indirect election of Islamic scholar Abdurrahman Wahid as president in 1999. In the new, unstable, bankrupt environment, without the necessary political skills or powers, Wahid’s attempts to weaken the army’s hold on the country and to expose corruption were easily resisted. As rioting and instability continued, Wahid attempted to declare a state of emergency but failed to get either political or military support and was quickly impeached.

Though the actual circumstances were somewhat different, the Paraguayan military and political establishment used a similar tactic—rapid impeachment—to dispose of the country’s leftist president, Fernando Lugo, in 2012.

Egypt’s Morsi could be seen as the elected son of a similar conspiracy—the civilian president that the military council allowed to rise to power, after ensuring he would have no power. He was to inherit a highly militarized state in which retired army generals and colonels occupy almost every high-ranking position in the bureaucracy, the public sector, and their own private sector, which accounts for 10-30 percent of the economy (no one knows for sure).

Other Interests: The US and the Gulf

Encouraging the military to abide by the MB victory is a gamble for the US, but this is after all the twenty-first century: US strategists have been preparing for this sort of transition for years, conducting secret and now public talks with MB leaders in which the Brothers stress their approval of market economy policies and their intention to adhere to international agreements.

One of the leading leftist analysts of the Arab Spring, Samir Amin, sees a more complex conspiracy involving not just the US and the MB, but the Gulf sheikhs, who have in the past supported the MB politically and financially. He argues this is part of the sheikhs’ plot to keep Egypt a poor, weak state, where 60 percent of the population live hand to mouth in the informal economy.

This lumpen-development (a term coined by André Gunder Frank) keeps the society imprisoned “in a spiral of pauperization and exclusion, which in turn reinforces the stranglehold of reactionary political Islam on society.” Although the Gulf sheikhs are uniformly appalled that Islamists have come to power in Egypt (the United Arab Emirates police chief famously expressed “condolences” to Egyptians via Twitter, and threatened to arrest the controversial Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi), secular Marxist Amin thinks all these religious fanatics are really in cahoots.

It may be that “it has never been the intention of the Gulf countries to support the development of Arab countries,” as Amin writes. But it is nonsense to assume the MB is part of this cynical ploy to keep Egypt down. And the desperate straits that Egypt is now in—due to the neoliberal system bequeathed by Sadat and Mubarak—will not allow the MB to preside complacently over the Egyptian Titanic, even if they want to.

Amin dismisses the electoral process as a charade, wishing a plague on both the military and MB. The idea that leftists should try to work with the Brotherhood to save Egypt from the gloomy scenario he paints, and in the process, buttress reformist MBers, such as the Abdul-Futuhs and Beltagis, never enters his mind. The activities of the Egyptian liberal-left opposition since the elections reflect Amin’s uncompromising position.

No matter what Morsi does, he is denounced. His cabinet is criticized as too MB by some, and too military-old guard by others. Prime Minister Hesham Qandil is criticized as both old guard (he was water resources and irrigation minister in the interim military government) and closet MB (he sports a goatee). The MB threatens to burn books, censor sleazy soap operas, and dynamite the pyramids, it is said. Yet Morsi retained the interim government’s ministers of culture and antiquities, and has made visits to tourist sites and praised Egypt’s tourist industry.

There is a conspiracy afoot here, but it is not between the military and the MB or among the MB and certain foreign powers, trying to keep Egypt a US vassal. The conspiracy is rather one of the secular old guard and the military about how to deprive the MB of real power, scuttle its attempt to clean up Egypt’s economic and political life, and introduce some social justice. And liberals and progressives—including Judge Gebali and Samir Amin, who seem intent on making the conspiracy triumph—are largely perceived as being part of it.

A Game-Changing Move?

But the conspiracy of convenience may be unraveling. The early August murder of 16 Egyptian border guards as they were breaking their Ramadan fast caused the usual cacophony of denunciations of the MB from both the old guard and the liberal opposition. But the more intelligent critics quietly noted that the real guilty party was the army leadership, too busy playing politics (egged on by the old guard and secular liberals) to do their real job. Morsi seized the moment, and forced the now-weakened army chief Tantawi to retire, along with other old guard generals and the border officials who had failed to prevent the fatal raid.

He also annulled Gebali’s constitutional declaration giving the president’s powers to SCAF, and appointed a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as vice-president. When Mubarak was president, Mekky was a brave critic who protested publicly against the voting fraud. Morsi can now select a new panel to write Egypt’s constitution if the current panel cannot finish its work, and has broad powers to pass laws, though he promised to pass this legislative role over to a new parliament when the “booby trapped” interim constitution is replaced.

The sense of relief, even among the MB’s political opponents, was palpable. Morsi “was sending a message to whoever thinks the Mubarak regime is still able to come back: A military coup is not going to happen,” enthused liberal political activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb.

“We had been chanting, ‘Down, down with military rule.’ Today it came true.”

Eric Walberg writes for Al-Ahram Weekly and is author of Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games (

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2012, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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