The Military, the Brotherhood and Egypt’s Future


Mohammed Morsy celebrates his presidential election victory

by Andrea Teti

After one of the most nail-biting weeks since the Egyptian uprising of January 2011, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, Mohammed Morsy, was recognised as Egypt’s new President, the first in the country’s history to be voted in through genuinely competitive elections. This is doubtlessly a momentous occasion, particularly coming as it did hard on the heels of the dissolution of parliament and the nullification of the ‘political isolation law’ a little over ten days ago. But Morsy’s election is far from a signal that the balance of power in Egypt has shifted towards the Brotherhood. On the contrary, with the military entrenched behind a new constitutional declaration in the defence of its privileges, the Presidency thrusting the Brotherhood again to the forefront of public attention, and Egypt’s social cleavages and economic problems as urgent and divisive as ever, the Brotherhood face about as difficult a political challenge as one can imagine.

The Military

The military junta which de facto continues to rule Egypt since it removed Mubarak in February 2011 has given itself an institutional role – in the form of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – which has enabled it to intervene in both Egypt’s politics and its institutional setup. This it has done consistently, not least by creating the legal limbo in which the country currently finds itself. Over the past ten days alone, for example, a pliant Supreme Court dissolved parliament and reversed the political isolation law, Egypt’s only attempt at transitional justice, and an equally pliant Interior Minister granted the military police powers to arrest civilians. The junta also moved directly by revising its own so-called ‘constitutional declaration’, awarding itself legislative powers, control over the state budget (and therefore its own), and veto power over the Presidency’s ability to declare war and even removing his command of the armed forces. These events capped a long line of interventions by the military, which even if one limits one’s attention to the constitution and elections look dubious by any standard.

Every single election since Mubarak’s removal, for example, has taken place in a legal limbo: the March 2011 referendum on 9 constitutional articles quickly ballooned into a widely-criticised military-issued ‘constitutional declaration’ of 63 articles; the election of both houses of parliament took place without a constitution; and the presidential election took place without either a parliament or a constitutional assembly, yielding a president-elect who still now is waiting to know what his powers are. In every vote so far since Mubarak was deposed, the military have forced Egyptians to make decisions blind. In addition to loyalists holding ministerial portfolios such as Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Military Production, they have been quietly consolidating their grip on both security and civilian institutions.

Since Mubarak’s removal and the purge of regime ‘businessmen’ linked to the former President’s son Gamal, the military have attempt to prevent control being passed to either the revolutionaries, or the Muslim Brotherhood by using a range of well-known techniques used by the regime under Mubarak. These included dividing the opposition – easy to do, both because of the fractiousness of the ‘revolutionary forces’ and because the Brotherhood’s leadership favours negotiation with the regime rather than confrontation – but also stoking chaos and fear in order to reap the ‘security vote’, and keeping the opposition guessing and enough people hoping for a real transition.

But this strategy appears to have backfired. While the Army’s takeover was initially welcomed by many – though not all – Egyptians, particularly as a defence against internal security forces, this string of moves by the military were so clearly a power-grab that in most Egyptians’ minds it put paid to any notion that the armed forces were ‘defending the revolution’. Even the ‘Mubarak trial’ appears to have amounted to little more than a purge of political opponents, limited as it is to focusing on a few sacrificial lambs. Indeed, its high profile presence in Egyptian politics for the past year and a half has turned the spotlight on precisely those areas the armed forces wished to keep out of public scrutiny: its budget, its material and legal privileges, and its considerable economic empire. The price paid for the military’s continued hold on this power has been a body blow to its nationalist legitimacy and its political credibility in the eyes of many.

By letting Morsy take on the presidency, the military may be calculating that allowing the Brotherhood into formal – albeit not real – power might be to its own advantage. First, because it allows the Brotherhood to fail in government, and Egypt’s socio-economic problems are nothing if not momentous. Indeed, as long as the Brotherhood is kept away from power, it will be able to build on its legitimacy as an opponent of official corruption and authoritarianism, as it has for the past several decades. It will also gain legitimacy from its charitable work – from schools to hospitals – which will virtually guarantee that most people will be willing to give it its ‘turn’ in office. Second, SCAF may consider the Brotherhood’s coming to power to coincide with its own interests, which are rather more in protecting its privileges than in exercising power directly. From this point of view, Morsy’s ascent to the presidency may be a signal that the military have finally been able to find a compromise which would finally allow the Brotherhood enough space to falter.

The Brotherhood

The junta’s increasing weakness, however, does not necessarily mean growing Brotherhood influence. Indeed, many questions have been asked of the organisation, particularly since its cautious and compromise-prone leadership lost much sympathy amongst the wider Egyptian population. Although it is only a very rough indicator, one could compare the Brotherhood’s share of the vote in parliamentary elections – just shy of 40% – with Mohammad Morsy’s share in the first round of the presidential elections barely over 20%, the ‘felool’ Shafiq trailing closely, and both leftist Hamdeen Sabbahy and former Brotherhood leader Abdul Moneim Aboul Futouh very close behind both. It is of note that Sabbahy won in the Brotherhood and Salafi stronghold of Alexandria, Egypt’s second city. The difference in the Brotherhood’s share of the vote, which is certainly significant, has been put down to its willingness to negotiate with the regime and to its dismal performance in the new parliament, in which not only did it systematically exclude other parties from power-sharing in parliamentary committees, contrary to its promises, but it sought to work with the Salafist Nour Party to dominate the Constitutional Assembly. Liberal and Leftist revolutionary groups, which had already eyed the Brotherhood with suspicion before the January 2011 uprising because of its initial opposition and had strongly condemned the Brotherhood’s penchant for deal-making behind closed doors, were alienated even further.

The recognition of Morsy’s election, therefore, particularly after repeated delays in announcing results and persistent rumours of negotiations with the military, has led many to ask exactly what compromises the Brotherhood reached with the junta. The risk for the Brotherhood in striking deals with the military is on two fronts: first, these deals risk alienating internal constituencies, particularly the younger and more politically active elements, many of whom have either voted for non-Brotherhood candidates, or even left the group altogether. The second front is Egyptian public opinion: here, not only has the Brotherhood compromised with the junta, it has also displayed a notable inability – or unwillingness – to tackle Egypt’s serious social and economic divisions in parliament when it had the opportunity to do so. On current electoral evidence, in the longer run, the combination of these two factors risks seriously damaging the Brotherhood’s reputation. It was precisely the organisation’s unwillingness to support the original protests which sparked what would become the Egyptian uprising of 2011 demonstrated the limits of the Brotherhood’s previously seemingly unassailable mass support.

That said, the Muslim Brotherhood has not remained entirely entrenched in its old ways. Some have pointed out that in recent weeks it appears to have learned from the mistake of its past eagerness to compromise with the regime while ditching its revolutionary fellow-travellers, and has attempted to mend relations with other groups, and even make concessions towards them. Simultaneously, when the junta moved to secure the full spectrum of Egypt’s institutions, abolishing parliament and seemingly poised to appoint one of its own to the Presidency, the Brotherhood reacted not merely through negotiations but through mass mobilisation and public pressure. Certainly, the additional prestige and the popular legitimacy that the presidency – albeit narrowly won – affords the Brotherhood should not be underestimated: after all, Mohammed Morsy is the first competitively elected head of Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and one of its most strategic countries. If Morsy and his political patrons play their cards right over the coming months, they will be able to slowly but surely press that advantage against the military. In the past, they have certainly proven willing to play a long game.

Egypt’s Future

The challenges Egypt faces are truly staggering, on both the political and the economic front. Egyptian society is marked by deep socio-economic as well as political cleavages which were in no small part responsible for the unprecedented support which the January 2011 uprising quickly received from a very broad range of Egyptian social groups. While, as many commentators observed, breaking the fear barrier was a fundamental step in the history of a nation whose people had previously been known for their political quietism, the lessons from the Egyptian Uprising goes well beyond this doubtlessly important fact. Firstly, the Egyptian and other Arab uprisings reminded us of the brittleness of authoritarianism, that there is a crucial difference between a regime’s ferocity and its strength, and that one should not confuse the former for the latter. Secondly, it also underlined the fragility – or at least the weaknesses – of Islamist political movements and Islamism as an ideological banner: the established Muslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist Salafi movement and the largely co-opted Al-Azhar had all advised their respective followers not to join the January 25th demonstration which sparked the Uprising, and all had to scramble to reverse their positions when the massive support for the protests became apparent. Finally, the Uprising should remind policy-makers of the limits of neoliberal reforms: before the 2011 uprising, Egypt had been one of the IMF’s darlings, often praised for the speed of its privatization programme. But in an already highly unequal country, these reforms polarized economic differences, and eroded the status of previously supportive middle classes, resulting in the widespread support for the Uprising from across Egypt’s social spectrum.

Over the 18 months since Mubarak’s removal from power, however, neither the military junta nor the Brotherhood can claim to represent the interests of those who supported the Uprising by taking to the streets: both initially opposed the uprisings, both eventually used the protests to further their own agendas, both broadly agree on an agenda of privatization because both represent very strong economic interests, and neither are inclined by nature to compromise with political forces less influential than they are. Indeed, Egypt’s economic tensions are the consequence of policies that both the junta and the Brotherhood benefit from.

From this point of view, in the presidential run-offs eventually won by Muhammad Morsy, Egypt chose not so much between the regime and Islamists, but between two sides of the same system of power which Mubarak came to embody, but which was not removed with him. The fundamental tensions which mark Egyptian society remain, and neither the Brotherhood nor the military have yet shown they can meet this challenge.

Perhaps the most worrying feature of Egypt’s post-Uprising political landscape, however, is the fractiousness of its secular, leftist and supposedly revolutionary politics. The support received by leftist nationalist candidate Hamdeen Sabbahy in the first round of presidential elections, narrowly missing out on a second-round run-off, even more than the Parliamentary polls held between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012 suggest that there is considerable demand for a real political change and more precisely for a strong attempt to address Egypt’s socio-economic tensions. However, the so-called ‘revolutionary forces’ have been profoundly divided thus far, and so long as such divisions continue, they will be unlikely to be able to offer a credible alternative to Egypt’s beleaguered voters. Given the convergence of interests between the military, the Brotherhood, and remnants of the old regime at least on economic matters, a coalition of revolutionary and reformist forces seems to be the only hope for Egypt’s poor. Until that happens, however, Egypt’s first truly competitive presidential elections may paradoxically relegate prospects of a fully revolutionary turn in the country’s politics to an ever more distant future.

About the Author:

Andrea Teti is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Aberdeen and Senior Fellow at the European Centre for International Affairs.