The Junta and the Brothers

Egypt’s democratic future is bright! Except, of course, that it probably isn’t — at least in the near term. The process of ‘transitioning to democracy’ under the stewardship of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has largely been a sham, a long con carried out by the junta as it has sought to preserve military power and privilege.

The end of last month brought a symbolic — albeit uninspiring — milestone in this process, with the armed forces making a show of formally transferring power to the recently-elected civilian president:

Egypt’s new President Mohamed Mursi said on [June 30] the military that took charge when Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year had kept its promise to hand over power, speaking at a ceremony to mark the formal transfer of authority.

This ceremony capped a month of rapid political developments, against a backdrop of apparent confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the generals, interspersed with conciliation. Highlights from June — which I was fortunate to be able to spend in Egypt — include swirling rumors about Mubarak (ismubarakdead.com); the invalidation of parliament; naked power grabbing by SCAF through a constitutional declaration; and the presidential run-off round, accompanied by Egypt’s collective holding of breath as the announcement of results was delayed.

Fun times with the Brothers and the junta have continued into July. Juan Cole noted last week:

Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi tried to steal third base on [July 8], announcing that he was calling back into session the dissolved Egyptian parliament. It would continue to meet, he said, until new parliamentary elections, to be held within 60 days of the completion of the new constitution. He thus took on both the Supreme Court and the officer corps, setting the stage for a face-off.

Apparently cute photo ops aren’t everything (check out the hyperlink embedded in the selection from Cole, above); the military and the oh-so-impartial judiciary wasted little time before hitting back, a New York Times article explained:

Egypt’s highest court and its most senior generals on Monday [July 9] dismissed President Mohamed Morsi’s order to restore the dissolved Parliament as an affront to the rule of law, escalating a raw contest for supremacy between the competing camps… [A]t its core, the fate of this Parliament is another chapter in the long-running battle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military[.]

(For particulars of parliament being dissolved, see this Arabist post, including Tamir Moustafa’s comment at the bottom of the page.) The result? “Not so defiant: Egypt’s parliament meets for 5 minutes” — followed shortly after by Morsy seemingly backing down, at least for a moment. The matter is currently in the hands of an administrative court, and decisions on this and other critical issues are slated for today, July 19.

But focusing on day-to-day developments risks obscuring larger questions. Is this a carefully choreographed dance, or an actual struggle between the MB and the junta? Assuming it’s the latter, what’s on the table, and what are the Brothers’ prospects for success? Are there other relevant players? As the above-quoted Times article on the  parliament controversy argues:

In many ways the court and the president are proxies for a fight between the nation’s oldest and most influential Islamist organization and appointees of the ousted president, Hosni Mubarak. In Egypt’s postrevolt politics, their ideological struggle has been eclipsed by a more fundamental conflict, between “elected and unelected parts of the state,” Professor [of political science Mona El-]Ghobashy said.

The state apparatus is critical to understanding this story. Not only does SCAF have the power of this machinery at its fingertips; it hasn’t been shy about using it. As political scientist Joshua Stacher argued late last month, in “How Egypt’s Army Won“:

In February 2011, most analysts assumed that Mr. Mubarak’s government had collapsed. They were wrong. The regime never changed. It was reconfigured. The underlying centralized structures of the system that the military council inherited from Mr. Mubarak persist, and the generals have sought to preserve them. The recent election was just the latest attempt to formalize the generals’ executive authority while winning public legitimacy.

The military council exemplifies the highly adaptive quality of Egypt’s governing elite. Egypt’s senior generals have remade the ruling coalition by using centralized authority to neutralize newly included political forces and divide the increasingly marginalized protesters. In the process, the military has effectively prevented all groups from resisting its encroachment as a fourth estate.

This was possible because the state’s apparatus, while disrupted, held after Mr. Mubarak’s departure. The hierarchy within the vast and largely cohesive state bureaucracy resumed functioning as the effect of the protests subsided.

A recent Egypt Independent piece, “The Brotherhood: Battling on all fronts,” paints a picture of the MB struggling against multiple players both inside and outside of government, including private media.

Akram Ismail, a columnist and youth leader in the leftist Popular Alliance Party, says the Brothers may not win these battles because their adversaries “are very powerful.”

“The Brothers are fighting influential groups,” he said, listing the bureaucracy, the businessmen, the upper-middle class, intelligence officials and the security apparatus.

“It is a large social mix,” he said. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stands as the political representative of this network.

While the MB’s electoral capacity is a cornerstone of its ability to challenge this network, even Morsy’s ascension to the presidency wasn’t achieved solely at the ballot box; the Brotherhood (along with allies) stepped up pressure through occupation of Tahrir Square. There is a larger pattern of electoral results being turned into fodder for further negotiations, as Stacher argues:

High electoral drama has produced what political scientists call a “pact making” exercise.

Egyptians have gone to the polls five times since March 2011. Rather than elections’ producing real choices, though, the military has used them to create an environment in which it can negotiate a pact with the winners. And the Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to gain a lasting foothold in the system, has willingly participated. Yet it remains a comparatively weak actor, forced to compete on the military’s uneven playing field.

Even though they’re at a structural disadvantage, the recent ascension of Morsy to the presidency has given the Brotherhood a beachhead in government from which to push against SCAF’s dominance (it’s worth noting that he did officially resign from the MB and its political party). Morsy’s victory is a settled question, but other critical bargaining chips remain on the table, including the constituent assembly and the legislative branch tasked with appointing it.

Yet, how many concessions the MB is able to extract will depend not only on the group’s ability to mobilize both voters and protesters — but also on whether it’s able to assert control over some or all of the state apparatus. Stacher attributes the military’s advantage to its place at the top of the centralized state, which he argues the Brothers have been co-opted into:

In a sign of continuity, Mr. Morsi has met with the interior minister and pledged not to purge that despised ministry or seek revenge against it. Consequently, the Muslim Brothers have become invested in a centralized state that blocks the clamor for change from below. Given this political structure, Mr. Morsi isn’t likely to be able to resist the generals’ ultimatums in the short-term.

However, the Brotherhood has the opportunity to carve out a niche within the apparatus from the inside, and to put its hands on the levers of state — or at least some of them. This is Egypt’s best hope for seeing a reduction of military power in the near term. Whether or not the Brothers succeed (if they even want to) in aggressively challenging the generals remains to be seen, but so does their capacity to deeply entrench themselves within the state over the longer-term — an outcome that may be damaging to Egypt’s democratic prospects in its own right.

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