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5 Things the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Countercoup’ Tells Us About Egypt

Published: August 14, 2012 | 10:23 am
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1. ‘It’s Never as Bad as It Seems on Twitter’

As analysts scrambled over the weekend to interpret President Mohamed Morsy’s decrees retiring the head of Egypt’s military junta and reversing its June 17 constitutional putsch stripping the presidency of much of its executive power, assessments veered all over the map: some called it a countercoup or a restoration, in a stroke, of democratic civilian rule; others warned that it marked the declaration of an Islamic state. Sobriety militates against such final or definitive conclusions, however. Indeed, George Washington University Arab-politics specialist Marc Lynch offered a sage tweet-length rule of thumb for analyzing Egyptian political developments: “It’s never as bad as its seems on Twitter.”

Power in Egypt remains in a state of flux, and Morsy has reminded us that we definitively predict outcomes at our peril. The Muslim Brotherhood alumnus had been elected in June to a presidency ostensibly stripped of much of its executive authority by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) decrees, which were blessed by Egypt’s highest court in an alliance reminiscent of the “deep state” that arose in Turkey during the 1980s, when hard-line secular-nationalist generals and judges claimed effective veto power over democratically elected governments. Morsy looked like a lame duck, who had been set up to fail by a junta aggressively seeking to cement its own direct control over Egypt’s political future.

By “retiring” Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Sami Annan and reversing SCAF’s June 17 edicts, Morsy has certainly made clear that he’s no lame duck. But even if he’s shaken up the power game within Egypt’s all-too-vaguely defined institutions, it’s far too soon to tell just how much authority he has amassed. There may yet be some pushback from within the military, although initial responses suggest that there’s considerable support even within the junta for kicking Tantawi and Annan upstairs, and none of the signals that the military could respond with a coup. Although reports suggest that the announcement came as a surprise to the two senior men, the field marshal was replaced at the head of SCAF by another member of the junta, the more youthful General Abdul Fattah al-Sissi, who is 57 — 19 years younger than Tantawi. Reuters quoted another member of SCAF, General Mohammed al-Assar, as saying the move had been “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.” This isn’t the first time that members of the junta are making conflicting statements, but it does suggest that the move to replace Tantawi has the support of at least some in SCAF. And by naming Tantawi and Annan as “presidential advisers” and awarding them Egypt’s highest military honor, Morsy appears to be tacitly offering them protection against prosecution.

Still, it would be a mistake to tout Morsy’s moves as a decisive victory in the struggle for power between the military chiefs and the elected government. “The quiet deliberation with which this has been done and the military’s apparent acquiescence, suggests broad internal military support for the move,” notes Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If the military remains quiet, one must assume that a deal has been brokered. The simple triumph of Islamist politicians over military officers would have aroused more resistance in the military.” Even if the generals don’t push back, the judges may yet choose to — although Century Foundation Egypt analyst Michael Wahid Hanna suggests the jurists might be reluctant to act if the generals are acquiescing, lest they provoke a backlash that leaves them isolated. Much will depend, also, on how Morsy handles the political balance of forces in the weeks ahead: having reclaimed control over the process of writing a new constitution, the decisive question may be whether he’s willing to build a broad-based coalition for civilian rule by accommodating the concerns of parties opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.

So while the President’s lightning offensive has changed the dynamic, Egypt’s political struggle remains a long-term conflict between rival power centers whose outcome won’t be settled for months, or even years to come — and will, no doubt, be the subject of dozens of all-is-lost/all-is-won Twitter emergencies along the way.

2. Power in Egypt Is Not About Personalities

Even Hosni Mubarak, in the end, was less important than the regime he headed. That much was clear in February 2011, when the strongman President of 30 years was unceremoniously shunted out of power by SCAF, a coterie of generals he appointed. That was a reminder, of course, that Mubarak’s regime hadn’t been created in his image and was no personality cult; he’d simply inherited the reins of power when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was gunned down. Mubarak ultimately owed his power to the military, and what the military had given, the military eventually took away.

Nor was SCAF created in Tantawi’s image, even though he headed it. It may have been just as plausible, had the transition gone differently, that the military junta might have been headed by former Mubarak consigliere, the late General Omar Suleiman. And what last weekend’s events have shown, if indeed SCAF acquiesces to Tantawi’s and Annan’s forced retirement, is that the institution of SCAF is more powerful than the individuals that might lead it. It’s a crystallization of the military’s authority, and also vast institutional and economic interests, in Egyptian society, rather than an expression of the power of a specific cohort of generals. And Morsy appears to have used that fact to tilt the balance of power between civilian government and the military a little more in his favor. The changes, wrote analyst Issandr el-Amrani, were made “mostly within the logic of promotion typical of the Egyptian military (i.e., no people were suddenly dropped into the senior ranks from lower ranks or outside the senior staff). The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity.”

Still, Morsy’s moves will have temporarily disorganized the opposition he was encountering from a rival power center. And he has changed the power balance within that power center. “There are some members of the SCAF who helped Mr. Morsy to do this, and they will now be beholden to him and owe their positions to his administration,” Brookings Doha Center analyst Shadi Hamid told the Economist. “What we’re going to see is a temporary accommodation in the short-term. But the institutional struggle between the military and the Brotherhood will continue.”

By exploiting the differences among generals, Morsy may have at least temporarily demobilized opposition to himself from within the military and elevated a cohort of leaders that owe their positions to him. That might allow him to push SCAF out of the political process and the writing of a new constitution, denying it the role of protector of secularism, etc., but guaranteeing its institutional interests, like an extensive share of the economy. How that plays out remains to be seen, and it will be settled by the coming together in alliances and clashes of a number of different power centers.

For the record, it’s also misleading to think of this as Morsy’s power game: the new President had been a lifelong activist of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement based on collective leadership. And even though he’s resigned from the movement now that he’s President in order to better represent all Egyptians, there’s no question which power center drives his agenda. Let’s not forget that Morsy, in fact, is something of an accidental President himself: Egypt’s elected leader today would be Khairat al-Shater, Morsy’s longtime mentor in the Brotherhood, were it not for SCAF’s electoral commission ruling him ineligible on a legal technicality. Morsy was the Brotherhood’s Plan B candidate. Sure, there are key personalities that will make mistakes and wise decisions along the way that will shape events, but ultimately those personalities will operate within the decisionmaking parameters and interests of the competing power centers to which they owe whatever authority they have.

3. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, much of Egypt’s power game has been played outside the public view, a slow and grinding war of attrition in the corridors of power rather than dramatic showdowns on the streets. Sure, a few thousand Muslim Brotherhood supporters gathered overnight in Tahrir Square to support Morsi’s move, but these days such moves are desultory symbolic gestures; it’s not power on the streets that is shaping the current phase of Egypt’s revolution. Instead, it’s more like a Machiavellian “Game of Thrones“ scenario, but without the incest and decapitations.

That makes moves like Morsy’s hard to detect before they’re announced, and even harder to read, and respond to. “That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate,” notes Marc Lynch, who was an adviser to the Obama Administration during the Egyptian uprising. ”Presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend’s moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective.” Indeed, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland confirmed on Monday that the U.S. had for some time been expecting a leadership change in Egypt’s military although hadn’t been told when it would occur, and also that Washington was confident in those promoted by Morsi.

But as bold and sudden as Morsi’s moves may have been, notes Lynch, “they don’t instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics.” The deck may have been reshuffled, but conflicts between the elected leadership and the military haven’t been eliminated; nor have conflicts between the politicians and the judiciary, which may yet choose to push back against Morsi’s intervention — although, as the Century Foundation’s Hanna notes, the judges may be less inclined to do so if the military appears to acquiesce to the changes, for fear of making unenforceable rulings which then further undermine the position of the judiciary.

4. Egypt’s Institutions Are Weak and Lack Legitimacy

In the 18 months since Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptian power struggles have been waged according to a fluid and changing set of rules, the enforcement of which has been uneven and the prevailing assumption has been that the rules are about to be changed. It is supposedly a revolution, after all, which involves upending the rules of the Mubarak era and drafting a new constitution that will set the rules of a democratic political contest. Right now, however, it’s a game without clear rules, and without a referee.

There’s no constitution, and a democratically elected parliament has been dissolved by a Mubarak-appointed judiciary that sought explicitly to limit the power of elected institutions in favor of military control. Between them the generals and the judges sought to make nonsense of democratically elected institutions and enfeeble the presidency while executive power in the hands of SCAF. Now, Morsy seems to have struck back, but many fear he’s playing the same game, the rules of which are not entirely clear.

“Morsi acted extra-legally,” says Hanna. “That’s not a moral or political judgment — revolutions often involve upending the existing legal political frameworks. And the one he was overturning was also established extralegally by the SCAF. The point is that Egypt’s institutions have been weakened to the point that there’s no institution adjudicating the battle for power. The result, until now, has been a series of competing power grabs between the generals and the Muslim Brothers.”

But, he warns, the political tug of war between these rival power centers does little to build and legitimize the institutions necessary for a democratic transition: “Those seeking to build a stable democratic Egypt shouldn’t feel more comfortable with President Morsi amassing overwhelming executive authority over the political and constitutional process than they have been with the SCAF amassing that same authority.”

Progress will come only when those holding the reins are able to make the decisions that are best for the process of civilian democracy itself rather than the decisions that boost the narrow interests of their own faction in the near term. Even if he’s succeeded in rolling back military authority, it’s not clear whether or not Morsi will use the resulting space to build a wider democratic consensus rather than simply build the Brotherhood’s own power.

5. For Egypt’s Civilian Politicians the Choice Is Military Rule or Compromise with Detested Rivals

President Morsi has made a bold move to roll back military influence over the process of writing a new constitution and governing the country, but it will succeed only if he manages to secure a broad consensus in the political class for those changes. If the Muslim Brotherhood is seen by its rivals to repeat the mistakes of the past year by seeking once again to monopolize power over the constitution-writing process and in governing the country, many liberal and other secularist elements will remain alienated from the political process, creating space and a measure of political legitimacy for the judges and generals to reassert their own authority in the guise of serving as custodians of secularism.

To create the necessary broad political consensus, Morsi would have to challenge the instincts and track record of his own party, and live up to his promises to govern on behalf of all Egyptians by restraining the Muslim Brotherhood’s instinct to seek control over the political process. “The deeply rooted fears of the Muslim Brotherhood, fueled by recognition of their popular strength and doubts about their democratic convictions, prevents any easy [celebration of Morsi's moves as a victory for democracy] in many quarters. That’s why the next few weeks will be crucial, as Morsi makes clear what kind of constitutional process he really intends and as the military and the anti-Islamist trends in Egyptian politics weigh their next moves.”

For those anti-Islamist forces, the challenge is the same: They’re never going to love or trust the Muslim Brotherhood, but nor are they ever going to achieve a democratic transition in Egypt without acknowledging that the Islamists playing the central role is, in fact, the verdict of the electorate.

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