Monday, 18 June 2012

Political engineering in Egypt and Islamist ambitions

Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will retain control of legislative and budgetary affairs in the absence of parliament, Egyptian military sources said June 17. The SCAF soon will issue a constitutional declaration consolidating their powers.

There were some encouraging signs towards future stability June 17 when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood political party confirmed rumours their candidate had indeed won the country’s first free elections. Mohamed Morsy, a US-educated engineer and the Muslim Brotherhood’s (MB) frontrunner is placed well ahead of the SCAF candidate Ahmed Shafiq with the final vote yet to be tallied. A claim contested by the SCAF candidate.

The elections were already compromised however when the SCAF dissolved the Islamist parliament right before Egyptians were supposed to go to the polls. In doing so the legislative powers to draft the country’s constitution fell to the SCAF. Their upcoming constitutional declaration will involve new rules for the formation of the constituent assembly and will include a provision that will require the new president to be sworn in before the SCAF, not the lower house of parliament. The military council has released a constitutional decree which includes seven provisions allotting the SCAF unprecedented control over the formation of Egypt’s constitution, while significantly limiting the powers of the incoming president.This indicates just how deeply concerned the ruling military regime feels about the potential victory for Islamist politics in Egypt, the SCAF do not wish to lose any power.

Regardless of how this particular step in the drawn-out Egyptian elections eventually results, the SCAF are extremely unwilling to hand considerable power to the Islamist group just because the election is free. The proposed date of July 1 for a true transfer to civilian rule, backed by Washington’s political force, is fast approaching. Many in Egypt are sceptical that the old military regime will relinquish their tight control completely, if at all, and certainly aren’t convinced that the MB will have any real power. As if to confirm this, the constitutional changes underway show that the SCAF still plan to directly influence Egyptian parliament structure well into the future regardless of the electoral outcome.   

While only one third of the Egyptian parliament was deemed unconstitutional last week the parliament was dissolved nonetheless. The political manipulation of the elections process in Cairo is worrying foreign observers. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta called Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces head Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to discuss the need to move forward with the political transition.

Panetta said Egypt should conduct new legislative elections as soon as possible, referencing Monday’s planned timeline. Tantawi reiterated SCAF's commitment to hold fair presidential elections as scheduled and to transfer power to an elected government by July 1. Due to the importance of the U.S.-Egyptian relationship, the U.S. will work with Egypt's newly elected government to advance mutual interests, according to the statement. Panetta did not suggest any caveats pending the election results, presumably because he knows the SCAF will remain in power even if they do not win the elections. The Muslim Brotherhood is an important political voice for the Egyptians but as a civilian entity it simply cannot match the power of the military regime.

After the turmoil of the Arab Spring, a pseudo-revolution that replaced the old military officer Hosni Mubarak with other military officers of the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood has been on the rise as a popular political wing. Egypt lays reluctant claim to the scion of Islamist republican politics that has spread throughout the Middle East and Levant. The Egyptian military has long fought to contain the MB group by either imprisoning members or extraditing them, a tactic that all but succeeded in quelling MB politics in the Arab state until they were recently reinvigorated.

Since January 2011 when the first protests began to clog Cairo’s now infamous Tahrir Square the MB have campaigned hard in Egyptian politics to appear legitimate. Strategically they are not yet successful as their parliament was dissolved, but tactically their position is adequate for the moment.

The SCAF and MB have never been friendly and there was every reason to suspect that the proposed “free” election process would be controlled by the SCAF. The MB knows they cannot circumvent military rule and therefore is not opposing the decision to dissolve their parliament. None of the other non-Islamist parties have a clear chance at winning the election. But the SCAF would prefer not to manipulate the election process too overtly to avoid a MB victory, and alienate the Egyptian public, to ensure a desirable outcome. In fact, given the potential for a second, and stronger, MB parliamentary success it is quite possible an MB agreement with the SCAF is being carefully bargained right now.

The ruling military regime is stacking the deck to ensure against Islamists controlling the Egyptian parliament and Presidency. The SCAF made it possible for Ahmed Shafiq to run in the presidential runoff, even though he was the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak and therefore very unpopular with the protestors. The MB has no such problems with the voting public. The first parliamentary victory displayed how the Egyptian voters would prefer an Islamist republican party to control Cairo, rather than let the painful legacy of the military continue. There was little the SCAF could do to stop the MB moving into parliament; instead the military’s real power lies in the institutions surrounding parliament where the military-dominated justice system can block any step the MB take. It is unlikely any public vote will change the status quo of deep military rule.

The Arab Spring was purported to be a long awaited ray of democracy for the Middle East. This region of the world had, according to the Western media’s narrative, been subject to the despotic and occasionally psychotic reign of terrible men who cared for little more than advancement of their own power. The place needed democracy and it was finally en route in the neat, packaged form of peaceful demonstrations. The dramatic displays of defiance that swept the dry Mediterranean lands in 2011 were explained by news agencies as the first pangs of democratic fervour that would ultimately lead to fresh egalitarian societies in an area of the world that had never experienced such governments in all its long history.

Mubarak was cruel, and the military regime he represented kept the Egyptian people away from proper democracy, but those leaders knew what would likely replace them if they collapsed. The pieces of the puzzle not well-reported during the Arab Spring protests were the intentions of the Islamist parties of Egypt to capitalise on the turmoil. Western ambitions of a long-awaited democracy finally beginning in Egypt failed to predict just what results could arise from truly fair elections in a historically complex and highly religious country. The SCAF are very aware that if Cairo is controlled by a democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood the future of already tense foreign relations could be diverted to fit with a new Islamist ideology for Egypt. The potential for regional clashes would increase.

Therefore the SCAF are engineering the electoral process to be irrelevant as to who wins the Presidency. The MB may have their man in the top position on July 1 and parliament could even fall under their control. However, even then they must strike an agreement with the SCAF to have any sniff of control over Egyptian affairs. The SCAF will always retain a tight grip on the institutional levers and will dictate how the constitution will divide power between the military, presidency and parliament. Even if the MB decides to protest the changes, something they have become adept at recently, ultimately the military will still be in control and, barring a huge strategic reversal, the Egyptian political structure on July 1 will be little different to today.

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