Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Protests return to Egypt after controversial power grab

It certainly isn't unusual these days to see protesters gathering in Egypt’s Tahrir square demonstrating against this and that. What is out of the ordinary is when those demonstrators storm down the road and overwhelm the presidential palace like they did on December 4. Such an event signals a broadening campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood’s government.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was not residing in the palace at the time, scheduled instead to be at an “undisclosed location”, but the message was read loud and clear.

The protests are in response to a recent power consolidation attempt by Mr Morsi to write into the new Egyptian draft constitution important executive decrees granting the President absolute power, including immunity from all legal rulings.

Mr Morsi’s move to secure such draconian rules is itself a response to his opponent’s main weapon of bringing legal suits to challenge his government.

The Muslim Brotherhood is confronting Mubarak-era judicial authorities over the constitution. Simply put, the decree causing all the mayhem in downtown Cairo essentially stalemates the independent judiciary, places executive powers in command of the high court, and brings the institutionalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood closer to a reality.

It is the courts more than anything that has seriously impeded the recently elected Muslim Brotherhood government and any attempt by Mr Morsi to exact control over Egyptian politics.

This present crisis is an exercise to loosen some of these judicial constraints and set in motion the finalising of Egypt’s long-awaited constitution. Doing so would help tip the balance of power away from the courts and the military towards Mr Morsi and could win back control of the Egyptian parliament for the Brotherhood.

Since the 2011 so-called Arab Spring movement ignited large protests inside Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents have been united only rarely. The government’s decrees unified them completely, although for how long is unknown. The demonstrations in Egypt this week have included secularists and Copts along with many others, all seeing common cause in shouting down a new tactical move to further strengthen the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood’s power.

Now, the only significant sector of Egypt deferring entry into the argument is the military. The power grab by Mr Morsi was orchestrated to display his power over the judiciary, and the judiciary is controlled by the powerful Egyptian military. It waits to be seen exactly how the military will respond, their silence already speaking volumes.

The military never exactly abdicated power after Mubarak stepped down last year. Generals were in control since the 1950s with Gamal Abdel Nasser and they are in essential control even now. The Arab Spring demonstrations and subsequent democratic election process served only to change the veneer of Egyptian politics, not the foundations.

Today, the Egyptian military’s central constraint is a desire to rule from behind the curtain, and leave the day-to-day details to an elected official. This limits how far they can intervene in the civilian government’s decisions. And so long as the status-quo is maintained, the Generals appear content to keep their distance despite rising calls from Mr Morsi’s opponents for assistance.

That the military haven’t intervened yet could signal a drastic weakening of their position or it could indicate their implicit agreement with Mr Morsi’s proposed direction for Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood must cooperate with the Egyptian military if it wishes to continue ruling. Forcing a scenario in which the military oust Mr Morsi and install a friendly face similar to the previous President Mubarak must be avoided as an imperative for the Brotherhood.

Even with the military in control it is clear the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension Mr Morsi no matter far removed from his compatriots he claims to drift, is the principal force in Egypt. So while the military are still in a strong position, they have not intervened to stop Mr Morsi’s power grab perhaps because the more prudent path at the moment is cooperation.

The Muslim Brotherhood needs to balance the other great regional power, Israel, and they cannot do this without the assistance of the Egyptian military. Likewise, the military can think of better things to do than govern Egypt outright and would rather a civilian government catch the blame for a poorly performing economy and divisive social clefts.

However, the Egyptian military must avoid slipping down the dangerous path of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood to draft the constitution without some oversight. Doing this would risk the Brotherhood gaining control of all major government sectors in Egypt, a situation ideally avoidable for the military if they wish to retain some semblance of a power balance.

Mubarak’s Egypt was all but a puppet regime, moving only by inertia. Mr Morsi has clearly spotted a strategic opening and is moving rapidly to draft the new constitution and consolidate his power at home before he turns his gaze on the surrounding Middle East.

Fresh out of an impressive first-outing in mediating a cease-fire during the recent Gaza-Israel spat, Mr Morsi has shown how serious Egypt is becoming about reengaging with the wider region. This would be an important step as Egypt is the largest Arab country in the Middle East and holds a special geopolitical seat in the region.

A large number of Egyptian judges have come out against Mr Morsi’s decrees this week saying the President is assuming supreme power. But Mr Morsi is not backing down yet and there is good reason to hold his ground. It appears some sort of understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military keeps the Generals from intervening.  

If the protests escalate in the coming weeks they could undermine Mr Morsi’s rule and convince the military to step in, a situation greatly favourable to the forces opposing Mr Morsi’s government. Yet if the military decide to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mr Morsi will be significantly stronger next year.

As it has been for over half a century, Egypt’s military hold the reigns. How they choose to move will once again determine Egypt’s future. Business as usual indeed.

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