A successful transition from Hosni Mubarak’s autocracy is increasingly problematic for Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has by early counts won the presidential election by the slimmest of margins. The vote so far gives Mr. Morsi 51 per cent against 49 per cent for the armed forces-backed Ahmed Shafiq, Egypt’s last prime minister under Mr. Mubarak. But the former president’s legacy will almost certainly live on, despite the Brotherhood’s apparent victory, because the military establishment, determined its interests be protected, will use every possible measure to ensure that’s the case. Mr. Morsi is unlikely to last long.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), while portraying itself as the protector of the people and committed to democracy, has been working steadfastly to negate those ideals since Mr. Mubarak’s overthrow last year. Through the Supreme Constitutional Court and other organs of state that the military controls, presidential candidates seen as threatening were disqualified from running. Military candidate Ahmed Shafiq was accepted, however, despite his failure to meet the most basic of qualifications that candidates have no association with the former Mubarak cabal.
That Mr. Morsi be disqualified, on one basis or another, was thought to be a bridge too far. This the military had no interest in. It risked Egypt’s already fragile political and social fabric, making the election an outright farce and driving violence on the streets. Better to proceed step by step in closing down the process: postponing the adoption of a new constitution until after the presidential ballot, so that executive power could be defined in light of the winner’s orientation; dissolving the newly elected Islamist-dominated parliament; assuming all legislative and substantive executive powers pending new (and likely dubious) elections; doing away with the proposed constituent assembly; drawing up the new constitution itself. The newly elected president is to be sworn into office by the military leadership. Access to the legislature is blocked, lest any members of that newly elected and newly dissolved body attempt entry.
Monday, a regime spokesman said the constitution, defining inter alia the scope of presidential power, would be in place within two weeks, requiring new presidential elections immediately thereafter. The rate of change over the past week, in particular, has been dizzying as the military manoeuvres, side-stepping and countering any provisions threatening its dominance. Others in the SCAF pledge full adherence to democratic practice, even while their behaviour belies that pledge. What does ring true, however, is their insistence that Supreme Constitutional Court decisions must be respected by all as the final arbiter. Unstated, but understood, is that the court is a military cipher.
The reformers, who brought about Mr. Mubarak’s downfall, have been finessed, their expectations bitterly disappointed. They are badly fractured, no longer seen as a viable alternative by the majority of Egyptians, who have tired of disruption. Their triumph has turned to malaise in the face of continued economic crisis, increasing civil unrest and spiralling crime. The only real players today are Egypt’s long-standing competitors for power and influence: the military autocracy and the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, it was the military that forced Mr. Mubarak to abdicate – to ensure, so far as it could, that new faces at the top would protect the old power brokers, leaving its dominance undiminished. Presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak were all military officers, the essence of the Egyptian predicament since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.
The Brotherhood had been careful to minimize any perception it would threaten the goals of the uprising or the armed forces. Mr. Morsi spoke publicly, after the preliminary results, of pluralism, democracy and tolerance, including reference to the role and importance of Egypt’s eight million Coptic Christians and their churches. He has been loath to take on the SCAF respecting its initiatives, just as the organization had been in Mr. Mubarak’s time, believing there was too much to be lost by open confrontation. The same calculations seem likely to apply now, although there are many who must be pressing for overt action on the street, particularly among the Salafists, whose unadulterated fundamentalism leaves little room for accommodation.
The most immediate question is whether those who believe themselves cheated will take to the streets or whether Egyptians will acquiesce, believing the game is over. We can foresee how the coming crackdown will take place. Bit by bit, the SCAF will label dissent as subversion. Then comes the reaction of the international community, most importantly the United States. There will be much public groaning and moaning as the military consolidates, but Western players are likely to accommodate themselves, sooner rather than later, to the old and comfortable reality. So much for the Arab Spring.
Michael Bell, a former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories, is the Paul Martin Sr. Scholar in International Diplomacy at the University of Windsor.