In a stunning historic development, Egyptians have elected a prominent leader of the Muslim Brotherhood as their president. After decades of seeing the Islamist organization treated as the enemy by a series of military presidents, it was unthinkable just a short while ago that such a day would ever come.
This is happening just as the ruling military leadership is trying to sort out its own role in the new democratic Egypt.
Developments in the past week have ensured that the new president will be subordinate, at least temporarily, to the military leadership. And that leadership, in the absence of a parliament, also has taken on legislative powers.
As a result, it is unclear just who the real leaders are and who represents the people.
This volatile situation is “the culmination of decades of rivalry between the army and Islamists,” said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center. “This [place] could really explode.”
Egypt’s military leadership says it does want to hand over political power to a civilian president and parliament, provided the military’s own areas of responsibility are left to the generals to run, and provided all the institutions of good government – executive, constitution, legislature, judiciary – are in place to check and balance each other. At a press conference Monday, called to explain the military leadership’s latest constitutional decree, the generals held themselves up as guarantors of national stability – an image they earned 17 months ago when they stepped in to replace the country’s police, who had left their posts in the midst of the popular uprising, and an image they have tried to hone ever since.
Contrary to its initially limited goals, the Brotherhood has sought both the presidency and a majority in the People’s Assembly. Now that its goals are being challenged to some degree, it is determined to fight the military leadership’s decrees that purported to dismiss the recently elected parliament and to give all legislative power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. As well, the group intends to oppose the SCAF’s decision to appoint its own constituent assembly to draft a constitution, and it rejects the idea that the military has ultimate authority over a large number of executive powers that have to do with the national budget and matters of war and peace. Parliamentary majority leader Hussein Ibrahim has said that parliament was not really dissolved because the military council's dissolution order violates the Constitutional Declaration. “Parliament is convening Tuesday as usual,” he insisted. “We will not surrender to a military coup the only authority that has been elected in Egypt,” Mr. Ibrahim, a Freedom and Justice Party member, said.
Since the army toppled the colonial-era monarchy in 1952, it has been the power behind the throne of every president. It was the body that vetted and approved Hosni Mubarak for president when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and ideally would have liked to vet and approve his successor as well. Since the statist days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military has built massive wealth and commercial interests in several industries, interests it now wants to retain. As well, ever since the signing in 1979 of a peace treaty with Israel, the military has benefited from a close relationship both with the United States and with Israel, as well as a substantial program of military assistance that comes every year from Washington. The worry for the military is that the Brotherhood, with its anti-Israel rhetoric, could throw a spanner into the works, disrupt the military’s relationship with Israel and the United States and jeopardize its source of aid. It also fears the Islamists could eventually challenge their behind-the-scenes position, just as Turkey's ruling Islamist government has reined in the generals there.
Over the 84 years of the Muslim Brotherhood’s existence, the organization has fought to improve the lives and the political power of all Muslim Egyptians, as well as to increase the religiosity of the nation. To that end, it has often criticized and, in its early days, even attacked leaders and institutions it viewed as oppressive. Most of its leaders have been imprisoned on numerous occasions, sometimes for doing no more than belonging to the Brotherhood. Whenever it has been allowed, it has run members of its organization as independent candidates for parliament, but never did it imagine having the opportunity to openly contest seats for parliament and the presidency. The group was, at first, a reluctant participant in last year’s popular uprising, having been concerned the operation would fail and the Brothers would be blamed for instigating revolt. As events progressed, the group vowed not to contest a majority of seats in the People’s Assembly, nor to seek the presidency. That approach sat well with the military authority that had taken on executive and legislative powers when Hosni Mubarak was ousted and his government dismissed. Tensions flared, however, when the Brotherhood reneged on its pledges not to run.
Military: Best-case scenario
The military hopes to return to the kind of road map it initially proffered for the transition of power to democratic institutions: an assembly to draft a constitution that would define the powers of all the institutions and how they are to be elected, then the election of a legislature and president according to those terms. While the initial plan was contracted, owing in part to the military bowing to public or special-interest pressure, the SCAF still hopes to have a constitution drafted and approved by a referendum before a new parliament is elected. In a best-case scenario, the newly elected president would be only a transitional leader, giving way to a properly elected president whose powers would be defined ahead of time. The big hurdle in this scheme is drafting a constitution by an assembly that the military leadership itself will appoint, rather than one appointed by an elected legislature as originally intended.
Brotherhood: Best-case scenario
The Brotherhood knows that taking on the military over the right to enter parliament is a no-win situation. If the situation turns violent, the military will deal it a fatal blow, and if the Islamists turn to old-style sit-in-type protests, it will only remind people of the group’s earlier weaker days. Its best-case scenario is to use its political clout to enter into negotiations with the SCAF over the terms of parliament’s dissolution and its re-election process and timing. Having squandered its opportunity to take a lead role in appointing a representative constituent assembly by being too greedy in how large a share its members would have, the best the Brotherhood now can hope for is to be a party to the SCAF’s appointment of an assembly.
Military: Worst-case scenario
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has rejected last week’s dismissal of the parliament by the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court. (The court had ruled that a third of the members had been elected in a manner contrary to electoral law and that the whole body had to be canned.) The FJP says its members will attempt to enter parliament Tuesday despite military forces deployed around the People’s Assembly with orders to bar the members from entering. If worse comes to worst, the confrontation will result in deadly violence and lead to civil war. “If we see any more aggressive approach, then we will be talking about something similar to Algeria,” said Mr. Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center, referring to Algeria in 1992 when the army dissolved parliament after Islamists won the first round of elections and a decade of conflict followed with more than 100,000 people killed.
Brotherhood: Worst-case scenario
Neighbouring Israel says it worries that an unfettered Muslim Brotherhood administration will join with its offspring, the Palestinian Hamas movement in a war with Israel. It points to events such as Monday’s cross-border raid from Sinai into Israel as an example of the kind of thing the Islamist groups could do. The ultimate scenario, Israeli analyst Barry Rubin says, “would be if Hamas decided to renew a large-scale offensive against Israel from the Gaza Strip using rockets, mortars, and attempted cross-border attacks. Egyptian Islamists would send volunteers and money.” Mr. Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Herzliya, Israel, worries that the Egyptian army under a Muslim Brother’s leadership “would not be scrupulous in stopping the smuggling of weapons, terrorists and money across the border [with Israel]. As Egyptian fighters are killed in the Gaza Strip, the hysteria in Egypt would escalate.”