Morsi’s Victory and Egypt’s Second Republic


No. 590    July-August 2012

  • In an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the son of a peasant farmer from the Nile Delta, an Islamist jailed several times by Hosni Mubarak, has succeeded him as president of the largest Arab nation in a victory at the ballot box – thus inaugurating Egypt’s Second Republic.
  • U.S.-trained engineer Mohamed Morsi’s victory breaks a tradition of domination by men from the armed forces, which have provided every Egyptian leader since 1952, and instead installs the Muslim Brotherhood – a group that drew on eighty-four years of grassroots activism to propel Morsi into the presidency.
  • That Egypt will evolve into something resembling today’s Turkey is hardly guaranteed. To do so, the Brotherhood must give up its longtime dream of imposing shari’a and instead strike a moderate course. Protecting the rights of women and religious minorities in the new state will require a constant struggle.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood are shrewd pragmatists and fully aware thatEgypthas enough domestic problems of its own. Their main effort will be directed at rehabilitating the country’s devastated economy. It is unlikely, then, that there will be any conspicuous change in Egypt’s foreign relations and especially vis-à-vis the U.S. for some time to come, unless compelled by some unforeseen conflict.
  • Hamas in Gaza – an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – has high hopes, but it will soon be disappointed. However, another full-scale Israeli military action against Hamas in Gaza is not likely to remain unanswered by the Egyptian regime. For now, Egypt needs to reestablish security in the Sinai Peninsula and throughout the country, where Islamist groups have set up cells aiming to topple the government.
  • In light of the measures by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to curtail his powers, Morsi may have little choice but to compromise with the army. He could, however, choose a course of confrontation with SCAF, hoping  SCAF will ultimately yield and accept the new reality. A first sign of this attitude could be Morsi’s decree issued on July 8 to reconvene the dissolved National Assembly.

In an unprecedented reversal of fortunes, the son of a peasant farmer from the Nile Delta, an Islamist jailed several times by Hosni Mubarak, has succeeded him as president of the largest Arab nation in a victory at the ballot box – thus inaugurating Egypt’s Second Republic, an event that has profound historical consequences for Egypt and the Middle East.

Mohamed Morsi is the first Egyptian civilian to preside over Egypt since Mohammad Ali, himself an Ottoman army officer of Albanian origin, succeeded in detaching Egypt from the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the nineteenth century and established a monarchy that was toppled by a military coup in July 1952. Indeed, the U.S.-trained engineer’s victory breaks a tradition of domination by men from the armed forces, which have provided every Egyptian leader since 1952, and instead installs a group that drew on eighty-four years of grassroots activism to propel Morsi into the presidency.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi appears something of a historical accident; he was only cast into the race at the last moment by the disqualification on a technicality of Khairat al-Shater, by far the group’s preferred choice. The new president has struggled to shake off his label as the Brotherhood’s “spare tire.”1

Morsi has spoken of a simple childhood in a village in the Nile Delta province of Sharqiyah, recalling how his mother taught him prayer and the Koran. He obtained his doctorate from the University of Southern California in 1982 after earlier attending Cairo University. Following his studies in the United States, he returned to Egypt in 1985. Two of his five children hold U.S. citizenship.

A lecturer at Zaqazig University in Cairo, Morsi was chosen to be head of the Freedom and Justice Party, which the Brotherhood established in 2011 to promote its aims in the new party political system. Morsi has indeed been described as an apparatchik.

His daughter is married to the son of another Brotherhood leader and he has described his wife, who wears a long, capelike headscarf, as a Brotherhood activist. His wife refuses to be called the “first lady.” The couple has decided not to move into the presidential residence and to continue living in their modest Cairo apartment.

Morsi traveled across the country promoting the Brotherhood’s “renaissance project” – an eighty-page manifesto based on what it terms its “centrist understanding” of Islam. This document sketches out the group’s vision on everything from fighting inflation to refashioning relations with the United States as a partnership of equals. It also envisions deeper ties with Turkey, a Muslim state that Brotherhood leaders often cite as a model of success.2

Morsi does not have the luxury his predecessors enjoyed. For now he will not possess the sort of modern, absolute powers exercised by Mubarak, Sadat, or Nasser; those have been curtailed by a military establishment that will decide just how much he will be able to do. In June, the military rulers dissolved parliament in the wake of a controversial and pivotal court ruling. Moreover, the presidency as currently defined is largely a figurehead position; the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) maintains much of the control over the country, as it has since Mubarak’s ouster.3

Yet Morsi, who resigned from the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party shortly after the election results were announced in an apparent effort to send a message that he would represent all Egyptians, has said he is “in charge” thanks to the vote, while stressing that he must answer to the people. Unlike his predecessors, Morsi was sworn in as president before the Constitutional Court by SCAF, and not before both houses of parliament as in previous practice. In response, Morsi also addressed a crowd at the iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo, as well as students at Cairo University.

A “Moderate Agenda” and SCAF’s Alarm

Morsi has promised a moderate, modern Islamist agenda that can steer Egypt into a new, democratic era where autocracy will be replaced by transparent government that respects human rights and revives the fortunes of a powerful Arab state long in decline. This will constitute, he says, an “Egyptian renaissance with an Islamic foundation.”4 Yet many Egyptians, not least the Christian minority, remain suspicious of Morsi and even more so of the group he represents. Anti-Muslim Brotherhood sentiment, fueled by both a hostile media and some of the group’s policies, has soared of late.

At first, Morsi presented himself as a conservative Islamist – the only one in the field, he said. He repeatedly promised to implement Islamic law in speeches peppered with references to Allah, the Prophet Mohammad, and the Koran. But he has seldom spelled out what this imposition of shari’a would mean for Egypt, where piety runs deep.

Morsi has said Brotherhood rule would not entail Egypt becoming a theocracy, adding that there is little difference between the phrase “the principles of shari’a” – found in the current constitution – and shari’a itself. But this was typical of the vagueness that has fueled concerns among those Egyptians whose fears were also exacerbated by other elements of the Morsi campaign, including his early efforts to court the ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamist movement, Gama’a al-Islamiya. In a gesture to it, Morsi pledged to work for the release of Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, a militant preacher imprisoned in the United States for planning the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Another cleric, the independent Safwat el-Hegazi, added a radical flavor to Morsi’s early campaign, calling at his events for a Muslim superstate across the Middle East with Jerusalem as its capital. Asked about Hegazi’s remarks, Morsi later spoke of European Union-type integration for the Arab world and an Arab common market. “Jerusalem is in our hearts and vision,” he said. “But Cairo is Egypt’s capital.”5

As he readied himself for the runoff against the military’s candidate, former prime minister Ahmed Shafik, Morsi sought to reassure the generals about his group’s intentions. In a June 14 interview he said the Brotherhood would seek agreement with the military regarding the next defense minister. The army, he said, would also remain “protector of the interior” for up to two years while the Interior Ministry – a largely unreformed vestige of Mubarak’s rule – was being restructured. For the military, this last declaration was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The Brotherhood’s political gains – first winning the biggest bloc in parliament and then running for president – had rattled the military. On June 17, the first day of the runoff, SCAF, which had already reimposed martial law, enacted the above-mentioned court ruling to dissolve the Brotherhood-led parliament. As polling ended, SCAF also issued a decree taking legislative power for itself, among other measures aimed at sharply constraining the presidency. The drama had already begun on June 14 when the Constitutional Court invalidated one-third of the parliament, which was entrusted with drafting a new constitution. Because the elections for this one-third of the seats had been flawed, the court ruled that the entire parliament, in which the Brotherhood and its allies had a majority, had to be disbanded.

Furthermore, the Justice Ministry, under direct orders from SCAF, extended the powers of military police and intelligence agents, allowing them to arrest civilians for a wide range of offenses including protesting. SCAF, meanwhile, announced that an appointed assembly would draft the new constitution, replacing the assembly chosen by the elected parliament. SCAF also declared that it would “decide all matters related to military affairs,” including the country’s defense budget; there would be no civilian oversight. SCAF, then, had effected a “soft” coup d’etat.6

In light of these dramatic events, Morsi may have little choice but to compromise with the army. Brotherhood officials said they had struck some accords with the generals on the president’s prerogatives, on the assembly that is supposed to write the long-delayed constitution, and on the fate of the dissolved Islamist-dominated parliament. While SCAF has finally accepted that Morsi defeated a former general in the presidential race, it has also appointed a general to run the presidency’s financial affairs.

Brotherhood sources expressed their hope that the army might allow a partial recall of parliament and other concessions in return for Morsi exercising his powers to name a government and presidential administration in ways the army approves of – notably by extending appointments across the political spectrum. Morsi’s team and the generals have also agreed on how ministries should be allocated in the cabinet, with the Brotherhood getting finance and foreign affairs but not the defense, interior, or justice portfolios. Brotherhood officials said the army had agreed in talks that new parliamentary elections would be held only for the individual seats where the elections had been nullified by the court.

Seeking to fulfill a promise of inclusive government, Morsi has undertaken to name six vice-presidents – including a woman, a Christian, and others from non-Brotherhood political groups – to act as an advisory panel. In another break with the past, Morsi wrote on his Facebook page that his portrait should not hang in state offices and that his guards should not turn relatives of slain protesters away from the palace. He also promised not to hold up traffic until his motorcade had passed, as Mubarak did.

Turkey as a Model

Egypt is now undergoing a power struggle between the military – reluctant to be subordinates of the Muslim Brotherhood whom they fought for more than six decades – and the Brotherhood, which claims its democratic right to govern Egypt according to the election results. The military’s concern to retain ultimate power is understandable, given its role as the country’s de facto ruler since the monarchy was overthrown. The military has built a vast economic empire that accounts, by some estimates, for more than a quarter of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

What sort of regime, then, will Egypt adopt? As mentioned, the Brotherhood’s manifesto calls for closer ties with Turkey, a state where an Islamic civilian government has steadily sidelined the military.7 It seems that SCAF has also been considering the Turkish model of power-sharing.8 Both SCAF and the Brotherhood are converging on this model with the intention of adapting it to their interests. Supposedly, the seeds for such an arrangement were planted soon after Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011, when Egypt’s generals ordered an Arabic translation of Turkey’s 1982 constitution. That document empowered Turkey’s military to police the political arena.

Of course, it is hardly guaranteed that Egypt will evolve into something resembling today’s Turkey. But for Egypt to aspire to a political system similar to Turkey’s – a military restricted to the defense of the nation and a government enjoying a strong popular base – Morsi’s Brotherhood must give up its longtime dream of imposing shari’a and instead strike a moderate course. The Brotherhood is philosophically committed to creating a state governed by Islamic law. Indeed, whatever new state emerges in Egypt almost certainly will not be democratic in the liberal, European tradition, and protecting the rights of women and religious minorities will require a constant struggle.9

A slogan associated with Morsi’s campaign, “Islam is the solution,” sparked concerns that he would introduce an Islamic theocracy. Morsi said in an interview, however, that he had no such plans. Instead, his party aimed for “an executive branch that represents the people’s true will and implements their public interests….There is no such thing called an Islamic democracy. There is democracy only….The people are the source of authority.”10

What Next?

Egypt’s body politic is in full mutation, and any prediction would be mere speculation. Indeed, the contours of Egypt’s new political system may not emerge in the coming months; the new government will still be very busy putting its own house in order. The Muslim Brotherhood are shrewd pragmatists and fully aware that Egypt has enough domestic problems of its own. Their main effort will be directed at rehabilitating the country’s devastated economy.11

It is unlikely, then, that there will be any conspicuous change in Egypt’s foreign relations for some time to come, unless compelled by some unforeseen conflict – that cannot be ruled out, given the level of volatility in the region.

The Israeli Dimension

The Muslim Brotherhood – an organization in which President-elect Morsi was a member throughout his adult life before resigning in order to assume the presidency – has made no secret of its hatred of Israel. Morsi has called for a review of Cairo’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel, claiming Egypt’s neighbor has not respected the accord. Like all other Islamists and many secular nationalists, for that matter, the Brotherhood has vehemently opposed the peace with Israel, only reluctantly growing to accept it out of sheer pragmatic self-interest. Otherwise, it would have been nearly impossible for SCAF to allow them anywhere near the seat of government. It is also known that the Brotherhood has reassured the U.S. administration that it would abide by the deal.

The Palestinian faction in control of the Gaza Strip, Hamas – which is in fact an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood – has high hopes. But it will soon be disappointed,12 as Morsi will have other pressing priorities in the domestic sphere. Nevertheless, another full-scale Israeli military action against Hamas in Gaza is not likely to remain unanswered by the Egyptian regime. It is one thing to accept the peace treaty de facto; it would be another to accept that Hamas be defeated or humiliated by Israel. However, as long as the conflict remains on a low flame, Morsi’s Egypt will not likely escalate hostility toward Israel, especially as long as SCAF remains in the driver’s seat.

More pressing in the short term is Egypt’s need to reestablish security in the Sinai Peninsula.13 Israeli spokesmen and politicians have repeatedly stressed that Egypt has almost lost control in Sinai. Egypt’s gas pipeline to Israel and Jordan has indeed been sabotaged fourteen times since the inception of the post-Mubarak military regime. Israel has also warned its citizens to stay out of Sinai since it has become a haven for terrorists, smugglers, and arms trafficking. Intelligence sources say there are about ten thousand Islamic extremists in Sinai, training and getting logistical support from local Bedouins.

To help Egypt regain its grip on Sinai, Israel twice agreed to significant Egyptian troop increases in the peninsula, thus altering the parameters of the peace treaty’s military annex. The Egyptian authorities, however, realized to their dismay that the phenomenon is not limited to Sinai but engulfs the whole of Egypt. Islamist cells have been created all over the country with the aim of toppling the regime. The network of Palestinian organizations in Gaza has already proved to be a threat to Egypt itself. In January 2011 Egypt’s former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, blamed the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamist group Jaish al-Islam for a New Year’s Eve attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria that left twenty-three Egyptian Christians dead. Jaish al-Islam is an al-Qaeda affiliate and was formed by members of the Popular Resistance Committees, the organization responsible for an August 2011 terror attack within Israel that killed eight.14

Indeed, only two days before that attack on Route 12 to Eilat, Egyptian security forces mounted an assault east of the town of El-Arish in northern Sinai. This revealed yet another spillover of radical Islamic groups from Gaza into Sinai, which threatened Egypt and not just Israel. Certain details were released in the aftermath. These radicals in Sinai were part of a Takfiri group related to the Muslim zealots who assassinated President Sadat in 1981, some of whom subsequently joined al-Qaeda.

The group was trained militarily in Gaza and in the region of Jabal Hilal in central Sinai, now the refuge for most of the fundamentalists fleeing the Egyptian security forces. Jabal Hilal has been a notorious base for al-Qaeda in the recent past and the location of difficult battles between al-Qaeda and the Egyptian army, in which an Egyptian general was killed in one case. The Takfiri militants were also part of the groups that were sabotaging the gas pipeline to Israel.

Interrogations revealed that there was a Takfiri presence throughout Egypt. El-Arish was a convenient location because it is close to Gaza and Israel, making it easier to obtain weapons. Indeed, for decades al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has wanted to undermine his native country, Egypt, and the present chaos offers an opportunity. His rise to the top of the jihadist hierarchy could also herald an increasing role for Egyptians in the global jihadist network, which would make it easier for Egyptian Takfiri militants to work with al-Qaeda.15

In light of the Brotherhood’s electoral success in Egypt, how will al-Qaeda respond to the Morsi administration’s effort to restabilize Sinai? Would it be prepared to confront the Brotherhood, or will it be a tool in the latter’s hands in their fight against Israel? Will the Brotherhood use the al-Qaeda operatives to embarrass SCAF? In any case, al-Qaeda can be expected to make its presence felt in the Egyptian-Gazan-Israeli border area. If so, this will not only complicate Israel’s efforts to deal with Gaza but could seriously damage the Egyptian-Israeli relationship that has existed since the 1978 Camp David Accords. Only close, effective, but mostly tacit Israeli-Egyptian cooperation can help both parties, each for its own reasons, eradicate the fundamentalist cells in Sinai and beyond.

The Gulf Sponsors

Watching closely are also the Gulf monarchs,16 for whom Mubarak’s removal was a personal loss, even a psychological trauma when he was finally put on trial. This is not the way the tribal societies of the Gulf treat their chiefs. Egypt needs these countries’ investment in its cash-starved economy; and it wants their labor markets to stay open for the millions of young Egyptians seeking work they cannot find at home.

Paradoxically, though, the conservative Gulf rulers have a lot in common with the Muslim Brotherhood’s socially conservative outlook, especially when it comes to female attire, the status of women, and personal freedoms. They are, however, profoundly wary of the kind of religious activism espoused by the Brotherhood, which has been key to its electoral success. An Islamist Egypt – if it ever becomes a full-blown reality – will most likely be of serious concern to the Gulf rulers. There have been reports of Gulf-state authorities becoming increasingly vigilant toward their vast Egyptian migrant communities, fearing the revolutionary trend may spread to their societies. The United Arab Emirates reportedly adopted a more restrictive policy toward work permits for Egyptian nationals. This fear and suspicion of “trouble-making Egyptians” is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon as Egypt’s Islamist ascendancy and revolutionary politics continue unabated.17

The United States

Most probably, Egypt will do its utmost to retain a special relationship with the U.S. administration. Egypt’s military receives $1.3 billion annually from Washington, and the civilian sector enjoys much American investment. However, Cairo will not hesitate to confront the United States on issues pertaining to national sovereignty, as it did over the past year regarding NGO staff arrested and indicted in an Egyptian court. No doubt these subjects will be at the center of talks scheduled to be held in Egypt with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Syrian Imbroglio

Thus, the major areas of Egypt’s relations with the outside world during the Mubarak years – strong ties with the West and with the conservative Gulf monarchs, peace (albeit cold) with Israel, and containing Iran’s regional ambitions (one of Morsi’s aides said the Muslim Brotherhood considered the Shia a worse enemy than the Jews!) – are set to remain unchanged, at least for the near future.

One area that may change, however, is Egypt’s policy toward the carnage in Syria. SCAF and the two governments it has appointed over the past year and a half have been notably silent on the civil war there. Here, Morsi and his new government will most likely push for a change and possibly even explicit support for the rebels, especially since such a policy would not put Egypt on a collision course with either the West or the Gulf monarchs, both of which openly support the insurgency against Assad’s rule.

Conclusions

Observers of Egypt’s politics are confident that Morsi will last no more than a year, let alone a full four-year term. They further expect SCAF to ensure that Morsi is no more than an interim president. Should SCAF succeed, Egypt will come under indefinite military custodianship.18

SCAF’s publication of the amended constitutional declaration on June 17, 2012, is indicative of what lies ahead. For all intents and purposes, SCAF pressed the “reset” button, canceling all of the transitional arrangements, timetables, and outcomes of the preceding sixteen months – except for the presidential elections.

SCAF is clearly in a powerful position, but it has a new challenger in Morsi. The amended constitutional declaration has trimmed his powers for the remaining interim period, however long that may turn out to be. However, he will doubtless convert the legitimacy conferred by his office into political advantage during the coming struggle to determine the shape of the new constitution. Once this constitution is ratified – no matter the balance of power it establishes between the presidency and the parliament – Morsi can reasonably expect to work with the parliament to consolidate meaningful civilian authority. This is unlikely to change much even if new parliamentary elections are held and the Muslim Brotherhood’s representation is reduced, since many of those who favored Shafik in the presidential election do not seek the restoration of the old regime and may support democratic reforms in the future.

SCAF will also be unable to delay ratification of a new constitution and the election of a new parliament – if this is decreed – indefinitely. The prerogatives and exceptions it seeks to enshrine in the new constitution place it above any civilian authority, but it is also keen to relinquish its direct role in governing. It is also eager to substitute sweeping military rule for more subtle military custodianship of the Egyptian state.

To achieve that, SCAF will have to balance the residual sovereign powers it claims with the need to make substantive concessions to those pursuing meaningful civilian rule. While Egypt’s democratic transition is by no means guaranteed to make headway, the election results have created an opportunity that Morsi and other political parties and players must seek to exploit.19

In light of the efforts of SCAF to curtail his powers, Morsi may have little choice but to compromise with the army. He could, however, choose a course of confrontation with SCAF, hoping SCAF will ultimately yield and accept the new reality. A first sign of this attitude could be the decree Morsi issued on July 8 to reconvene the dissolved National Assembly. Therefore, a showdown between SCAF and Morsi seems inevitable. The question is only one of timing.

If SCAF has the Turkish model in mind, it must take heed of an analyst’s observation about the actual situation of the Turkish military under Erdogan: “Now, in Turkey…one-fifth of all the generals are in jail. The elected Islamic leadership has brought the military to heel.” The head of SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, “doesn’t want to end up in a cage, but ultimately, this is what the Brotherhood wants.”20

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Notes

1. “Profile: Morsi Goes from Prisoner to President,” Reuters, June 24, 2012.

2. Ibid.

3. “Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi Urges ‘Unity’ in First Speech as Egypt’s President-Elect,” CNN, June 24, 2012.

4. “Profile.”

5. Ibid.

6. Marwa Awad, “Egypt Court Rejects Army Powers to Arrest Civilians,” Reuters, June 26, 2012; Edmund Blair and Marwa Awad, “Egypt’s Islamist President Takes Revolution to Palace,” Reuters, June 26, 2012; Alastair Macdonald and Marwa Awad, “Egypt Army Talks Tough as Tahrir Protests,” Reuters, June 22, 2012; Tim Lister and Lauren E. Bohn, “How Egypt’s Generals Cut the Revolution Down to Size,” CNN, June 20, 2012.

7. “Profile.”

8. Christopher Torchia and Maggie Michael, “Egypt’s Generals Eye Turkish Model,” AP, June 28, 2012; Alastair Macdonald, “Egypt Braces for Islamic President or Army Rule,” Reuters, June 23, 2012.

9. Timothy Stanley, “An Islamic State in Egypt Can Still Mean Democracy,” CNN, June 27, 2012.

10. Josh Levs, “Egypt’s New President: U.S.-Educated Islamist,” CNN, June 25, 2012.

11. Magdi Abdelhadi, “Egypt’s Neighbors Watch Rise of Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi,” BBC, June 26, 2012.

12. Ibid.

13. Jacques Neriah, “Egypt and Israel Caught in an Al-Qaeda Whirlpool?” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2011; Michael Herzog, “Sinai’s Emergence as a Strategic Threat to Israel,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, June 21, 2012.

14. Neriah, ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Abdelhadi, “Egypt’s Neighbors.”

17. Ibid.

18. Yezid Sayigh, “Morsi Versus the Military Council,” Al Monitor, June 29, 2012.

19. Ibid.

20. Nicole Gaouette, “Islamist Win Seen as Plus for Egypt Stability – For Now,” Bloomberg, June 25, 2012.

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Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputy head for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.