A year after the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt seems to be drifting into an unparalleled and unprecedented form of government and a unique political experiment in the Arab world: power and authority are being divided between Muslim fundamentalists led by the Muslim Brotherhood and their rivals in ideology, the Salafists. Both are partisans of an Islamocracy (meaning a combination of theocracy and democracy), with Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi orchestrating the twenty or so members of the Army General Staff, acting as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), as the supreme rulers of Egypt. The only remaining question is: to what extent will each of the contenders avoid stepping onto his neighbor’s turf? In other words, will the Islamists, as the main hijackers of the democracy movement in Egypt, accept that the military will remain the source of power and authority in their Islamocracy?
Indeed, the transition process of handing power from the military to the “democratically” elected civilian bodies seems to be stuck and has become the focus of friction between the SCAF and the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the great winners of the parliamentary elections organized in 2011-2012. The military is not in a hurry to subordinate itself to the civilian authorities, while the Islamists, although eager to capture power as the legitimate winners of the democratic process, behave as if they are afraid to provoke the military. They fear a confrontation that could lead to widespread bloodshed, similar to Algeria in 1990 when Islamists won the first free elections in the young nation’s history, triggering a civil war with 20,000 casualties before Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned to power with army support.
As a result, the two sides in Egypt periodically check the extent of their authority and assess the limits to which they can act independently without provoking a reaction by the other side. From this perspective, it seems obvious that the episodes of violent confrontation that have occurred in Egypt in the process of political transition are not due to a lack of experience but rather are the result of a strategy on the part of the SCAF. According to Stephan Roll from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, this strategy has three additional components: gauging public opinion, obscuring decision-making processes, and playing the various political parties and movements off against one another. This strategy became evident in the debate over the design of the new Egyptian Constitution. In March 2011 the SCAF announced that a new constitution would be drafted by a constituent assembly. However, in late 2011 when it became clear that the Islamists would dominate the process after winning the elections, secular-oriented politicians pressed for the adoption of “supra-constitutional principles” that would guarantee the establishment of a democratic state with civilian rule. The SCAF tried to use those demands to its own benefit by introducing a document outlining principles of a revised constitution that granted the military even greater authority than it had possessed under the previous constitution: complete control over the defense budget and veto power over all decisions affecting the military. Massive protests convinced the SCAF to withdraw the motion.
On the other hand, since the beginning of the January 25 revolution against Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood has avoided any direct confrontation with the SCAF. Members of the Brotherhood appear to repeatedly seek dialog with the SCAF. The Muslim Brotherhood strategy remains the same as it was under the previous regime: to change the system from within. The Muslim Brotherhood received 41 percent of the Egyptian vote, with 26 percent going to Muslim extremists known as Salafists, a jihadist movement that believes in “holy war” against the “crusaders,” i.e., Christians and Jews. In Arnaud de Borchgrave’s words, “what these two branches of Islam have in common is their idea of “free” elections – one-man, one-vote, one-time. After their expected victory, Egyptians can forget about another free election as far as anyone can peer into the future.”
Indeed, since the Brotherhood is focused on domestic policy, it should have no intrinsic problem accepting the fact that the military will decide on matters of national security and foreign policy, at least initially. This does not mean that motions in the National Assembly will not be raised and discussed and attempts will even be made to constantly undermine the authority of the SCAF. Recent months have provided sufficient proof that although the legislators in the National Assembly have debated and made decisions on crucial issues, the SCAF has either ignored these decisions or worse, adopted steps completely opposed to the decisions of the National Assembly.
a. The NGO Issue: The SCAF decided to release the American defendants in the court case involving pro-democracy NGOs (including the son of the U.S. Transport Secretary), who had been barred from leaving Egypt, after the State Department paid $300,000 bail for each of them. The judge appointed to deal with the case decided on the first day of hearings that the case would be adjourned for a few months. The SCAF is clearly indicating to American legislators that it is still to be considered a U.S. ally and that no limitations should be put on the $1.3 billion in U.S. aid that finances as much as 80 percent of Egyptian military procurement. This contrasts very clearly with the March 11 National Assembly vote to order an end to this aid, a reflection of tensions with the U.S. over the NGO activists charged with illegal activity.
b. Relations with Israel: Even though the atmosphere in Cairo today is not in favor of Israel (as it never really was in the past), the SCAF has given its approval for the continued presence of the Israeli ambassador in Cairo. The SCAF accepted Israel’s regrets for the killing of several Egyptian soldiers in the aftermath of a terrorist action on the road to Eilat in summer 2011. In March 2012, Egyptian intelligence head Murad Mowafi again brokered a cease-fire between Israel and the Islamic Jihad in Gaza. For the eleventh time, Egypt has repaired the gas pipeline with Israel and beefed up its troops in Sinai in its quest to “reconquer” this part of Egypt which had been left to al-Qaeda and Bedouin operatives.
c. The Challenge from Within: Following the departure of the American NGO defendants, Egypt’s parliament voted on March 10 to begin steps to withdraw confidence from the military-appointed government, a move that will pressure the SCAF to appoint a new cabinet led by the Muslim Brotherhood. A vote of no-confidence would take Egypt into new political waters and could set the stage for a confrontation if the SCAF refused to yield to the will of the National Assembly. It could also complicate negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a $3.2 billion loan the government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri is seeking in order to stave off a looming financial crisis after more than a year of political and economic turmoil. The problem for the Egyptian government is that it could not afford to continue antagonizing Washington for too long. Egypt is rapidly running out of foreign exchange reserves. The financial shortfall was created both by the collapse in business and the tourist trade following the revolution, and also as the long-term consequence of an unsustainably high and growing level of public subsidies. The IMF loan is vital if the country is to prevent a severe financial crisis.
d. Domestic Repression: According to several sources, more than 12,000 civilians have been detained by military tribunals in the past year – more than in the Mubarak era that lasted over 30 years. One year after the president’s fall, not a single senior officer in any Egyptian security force has been convicted in the killing of protesters during the 18-day uprising. Only recently did an Egyptian court rule as illegal the so-called “virginity tests” endured by hundreds of women who were arrested at rallies, demonstrations or protests. This procedure, performed by male doctors, was used as customary practice by the military.
e. The Trial of Former President Hosni Mubarak: The trial of the former president was slow to start after the revolution. Since he left office, Mubarak has spent no time in prison, instead remaining under 24-hour medical watch at advanced medical facilities. His defense lawyers have been allowed to call hundreds of witnesses, a process that could delay his trial indefinitely. And while Mubarak is granted all of the protections of due process, civilians facing much lesser charges are being tried rapidly in military tribunals. Lawyers, victims, and revolutionary groups have questioned the intentions of the SCAF or government prosecutors to deliver true justice.
To sum up, it seems that the military has managed to outmaneuver other forces in the country (Islamists, revolutionary youth, liberals, business elites, and even foreign governments) by creating conditions on the ground whereby everybody discreetly feels the military should play a role in safeguarding the political process, despite calls for its complete marginalization from political life. It is no coincidence that the only actual democracy Egyptians have ever experienced in five millennia was between 1946, the end of the British mandate, and 1952 when Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and his “Free Officers” seized power and overthrew the monarchy. Egypt’s military held power for the next 60 years (18 years under Nasser, 12 with Anwar Sadat, and 30 with Hosni Mubarak) and it does not seem likely that Field Marshall Tantawi would be the last of Egypt’s military rulers. Nevertheless, unlike the past, there might be a situation of co-existence between the military and the growing power of Islam in Egyptian society. On this front the military can do very little. The external expressions of Islamocracy are widespread today in Egypt. It would be a fair assessment to say that they are here to last. But in no way does this have to be antagonistic to the actual military rule that still prevails in Egypt.
In today’s reality, a power-sharing arrangement between the SCAF and the Islamists seems very likely. One possible compromise would be to delineate specific areas as domains under the authority of the president-elect, with the establishment of a National Defense Council, much as the SCAF is today, to support him in these policy areas. Such a body is already provided for in the old constitution (Article 182), but it has only an advisory role. The executive roles adopted by the SCAF are pure improvisations because of the political vacuum created by the resignation of Mubarak. Such an alternative could appease the military but would limit the powers of the president and the Islamist-led National Assembly. In other words, it would be the continuation of the situation that prevails today in Egypt. Such an arrangement between the parties would hold as long as the specter of civil war remained present or as long as the Islamists continue to accept the supremacy in power of the military. Any detected weakness in the behavior of the military would be interpreted as a sign to end the de-facto arrangement.