Saturday, August 11, 2012

Whither Egypt’s Unfinished revolution?
Published in The Daily Sun
August 12th., 2012

The Egyptian revolution, that had attracted attention worldwide when all eyes were focused on Tahrir Square for the dawning of democracy not just in Egypt but in the region, is stuck between the hard rock and the sea or so it appears.  An elected President, Mohammed Masri, is in office. He has also appointed a Prime Minister and a Cabinet. However, a parliament elected democratically in January this year has been dissolved by the military and the judges backed it on technicality. 

Today, the military operating collectively as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) holds most of the state powers to suggest that Egypt is yet quite a distance from winning its democratic credentials. Many outside Egypt who watched the revolution unfurl in Tahrir Square that brought down President’s Mubarak’s 3 decades long hold on power in less than 3 weeks time are puzzled by the present political situation in Egypt.  

Egypt democratic transition has now become a cat and mouse game between the SCAF and the deeply divided civilian parties/groups where the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has emerged in the dominant position. The revolution at Tahrir Square as a part of the Arab Spring was a movement of the youth who had passion but not vision; nor organization. The movement achieved its “critical mass” only after the MB lent support to it. Nevertheless it was only after the military backed away from President Mubarak that one of the most powerful and longest serving dictators in modern history was compelled to hand power in such quick time. 

The cat and mouse game the MB is now playing with the SCAF is a strategic one in which it is showing the maturity and experience it has achieved in its 84 years of existence. During most of this period till it formed the Freedom and Justice Party after the ouster of President Mubarak, it was a banned organization because of its fundamentalism and acts of terrorism that included an attempt to kill President Nasser. Nevertheless, in those many decades, the MB never lost the confidence that someday it would dominate Egypt’s politics. It built a strong base and network among the people, becoming deeply involved in the social and humanitarian works and services.

In dealing with the SCAF, the MB is working within the parameters of the new realities in Egyptian politics today. First, it is conscious of Egypt’s multi-cultural foundations; that although it is the largest and dominant political party, yet there is a substantial part of the Egyptian society that is secular and liberal who together with the 10% Christians in the country, have still serious reservations about the MB.  Second, the military in Egypt has tentacles deep in society, security and politics that have not been touched by the Egyptian revolution, not yet.  Third, the secular and Christian forces look upon the military as a balance to the MB and its fundamentalist politics. Finally, Egyptians are proud of their military for the wars it fought against Israel. It was the dreaded security forces created under President Mubarak’s direct control and supervision, and not the military that Egyptians feared and hated. 

The MB is confident that its time will come eventually to win the political powers usurped by the military and is in no hurry to confront the SCAF. MB Parliamentarian Osama Suleiman put across the view succinctly when he said: “The army is owned by the people. Civilian oversight of the military is popular will and nobody can stop popular will.”   In deciding to go slow, the MB is conscious of the Algerian experience. It does not want to give the military the excuse to crack down violently and derail the revolution. 

It thus has so far placated the SCAF by showing patience when the latter was taking its own time to hold the parliamentary elections last year and the pro-revolution forces were getting impatient. Instead, it used the time to join the nationalist Wafd party to form the Democratic Alliance with 40 other political parties. The alliance broke when the MB insisted on 40% seats for the parliamentary elections but by the time it broke, the MB had established itself as the leading political party. As a consequence, it went on to win 47% of the seats in the elections to the lower house of the Egyptian parliament. In early June, the SCAF dissolved the lower house and the courts upheld the action on technicality. Yet the MB remained silent.  

When the SCAF announced a constitutional declaration days before the Presidential election that was viewed by everyone as a subtle military coup and even a counter-revolution, the MB did not protest.  By the declaration, the SCAF turned the Presidency powerless and took over the powers of writing the constitution. The MB, confident of winning the presidency, did not want to give the military an excuse to delay or postpone the election and hence remained quiet over the “military coup.”.  It just wanted to win the presidency and the parliament through democratic elections and wait for appropriate time to wrest powers for both the institutions from the SCAF.  

Its strategy worked. After holding the country in suspense, the SCAF accepted the election of the MB candidate Mohammed Morsi as the elected President of a post-revolution Egypt by a thin margin of 51.7% against 47.3% votes won by General Ahmed Shafik that the SCAF and liberal/Christian forces in the country backed. The MB at first announced that the new President would take oath in Parliament to show contempt for the SCAF’s decision to dissolve the lower house or the People’s Council. Later it appeased the SCAF and the judges by taking oath before the Supreme Constitutional Court. The MB then focused on choosing the Cabinet to placate the political forces. It agreed at first to take 30% of the cabinet posts but later enhanced it 40%. The MB also agreed to nominate a Vice President each from among the women and Christians respectively. It appointed as Prime Minister who is not a member of the MB. 

In each of the steps the MB has taken so far ; its strategy has been to push from the top its 82 years of hard work in the Egyptian society to connect the power structure to its base. It achieving this connectivity, the MB’s objective is to widen its acceptance among the civilian forces that are apprehensive of its fundamentalist base. Towards that, the MB is also shedding a lot of its fundamentalist edges. For instance, the MB has compromised on the public sale of alcohol which is unimaginable in an Islamic state in view its importance to the critical tourist industry. Nevertheless, in reaching out among the political groups, the MB is also keenly aware of keeping its dominance. Even where it has placed a Ministry under a non-MB Minister, it has appointed a junior MB Minister to keep control. 

The next round in the cat and mouse game between the MB and the SCAF would be played when the constitution is written.  The Generals have made it clear about their intention to engrave into the constitution, a role for the military to their liking. The MB while trying to get greater acceptance among the people would be fighting the SPCA on the constitution and powers for the presidency and parliament till “civilian oversight of the military” is established. The game is going to be a long and protracted one but most Egyptians are happy that the MB and the SCAF have avoided confrontation mainly because of the matured handling of politics by the MB. 

Nothing dramatic is thus expected to happen in Egypt’s politics in the immediate future.  Nevertheless, the military forces will find it increasingly difficult to have their ways without questions asked and without accountability as the MB spreads its influence over the main political institutions.  In the MB, Egypt’s military has met more than its match that is reaching out to the people democratically to build its credibility and legitimacy. With such a cool and calculated approach , the military is bound to be shed most of the powers that it has assumed un-democratically. When it does is a matter of time. 

At the time of filing this piece, President Morsi has exercised his presidential powers by dismissing intelligence chief General Muwafi and Governor of North Sinai province together with major intelligence shakeup over clashes between the military and extremists in Sinai that left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. General Muwafi  appeared to be emerging into the footsteps of General Omar Suleiman, the charismatic former intelligence chief of President Mubarak, and had the confidence of the US and Israel. The President and the SCAF came together in dismissing General Muwafi as a fall guy for the deaths of the soldiers in Sinai that angered Egyptians. 

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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