Are Egypt's Islamists headed for collision with military?

Much has been written about a tacit agreement between the Egyptian army, led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

By JACQUES NERIAH
April 19, 2012 09:28
Mohamed Tantawi

Mohamed Tantawi. (photo credit: Reuters)

Much has been written about a tacit agreement between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) led by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and the Muslim Brotherhood. But as events leading up to the presidential elections began to unravel, it has become clear that no such arrangement was ever brokered between the two sides – and if it were, it is today null and void.

Fourteen months after the revolution it is an accepted fact that the Islamists have hijacked the revolution and have become the leading force in Egypt.

The current situation has been created by the inability of SCAF to rule Egypt since the end of the Mubarak regime. Their zigzag policy, particularly towards the Islamists, has created a situation in which liberals and secular forces lost at each encounter.

The Presidential Election Committee has barred three leading candidates: former intelligence minister Omar Suleiman, Salafi candidate Hazem Abu Ismail and leading Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater.

(The Brotherhood was careful to nominate an additional presidential candidate who qualified, Muhammad Morsi.) Egypt is entering a period of political instability with dire consequences for its neighbors, first and foremost for Israel. The Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty could become a “scapegoat” to divert attention from unsolvable domestic economic problems, seeking to blame outside factors for Egypt’s deteriorating situation.

Much has been written about a tacit agreement between SCAF and the Muslim Brothers.

SCAF’s legitimacy to rule Egypt since the fall of Mubarak has been drawn from Egypt’s constitution. The so-called “deal” was supposed to divide power between the two protagonists, whereby the Islamists would retain power in the legislative bodies, and the military, through their proxies, would keep control of the executive branch of government, first and foremost the presidency. But as events leading up to the presidential elections began to unravel, it has become clear that no such arrangement was ever brokered between the two sides, and if it were, it is today null and void.

The Islamists seem to have adopted a tactic whose purpose was to create the illusion that they would share power at all costs with the non-Islamic forces – the liberals and former military. The Islamists even declared they would not participate in the presidential election and would suffice with representation in the legislative bodies of Egypt. Operating under this cover, the Muslim Brothers conquered bastion after bastion of the Egyptian nation-state and succeeded in becoming the dominant force in the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council where, together with Salafists, they hold almost 70 percent of all seats, thus representing a formidable democratic force able to decide and promulgate laws as it pleases.

The sudden decision of the Islamists to take part in the presidential elections is indeed a wake-up call for the military, the liberals and the secular forces in Egypt. The grim possibility of a state in which the Muslim Brothers and their Islamic allies would rule Egypt has become very likely and could be the worst nightmare for all democratic forces in Egypt, particularly the military, the liberals and the 10% Coptic minority. Such an event would mean the rapid establishment of an “Islamocracy” and the beginning of the end of Egypt as a military society – a possibility that could affect not only the economic advantages of that class but mainly the personal freedoms guaranteed today by a pseudo-liberal constitution.

The military could not ignore the statement of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater, who said that if he reached the presidency he would seek to reform government institutions and society on the basis of Islamic teachings. Shater added that Egypt’s new government would exercise civilian oversight over the armed forces’ budget and their business interests. “It is not just taxing the military that is an issue. There is a problem of conscripts who are forced to work in army economic projects without payment.

What about the land that the army controls for free? All these issues should be addressed by the new government.”

The military’s zigzag policy, particularly toward the Islamists, has created a situation in which liberals and secular forces lost out.

While allowing Egyptians to demonstrate and unprecedented freedom of speech, more than 12,000 people were jailed after summary trials before a military tribunal. The military encouraged the political participation and emancipation of women but instituted a very bizarre practice called “virginity tests” for all females arrested in demonstrations, which was ended only recently after the intervention of an Egyptian court. The military lost almost all control of the Sinai Peninsula to al-Qaida and its Beduin collaborators.

ECONOMICALLY, EGYPT is drifting toward disaster. The Egyptian economy is in shambles.

Although the livelihood of one out of seven Egyptians is dependent on the tourism sector, tourism in the country is almost nonexistent.

Foreign currency reserves are depleted and are enough for less than three months of imports. Egypt desperately needs a loan from the IMF, but the Islamists argue that SCAF has no authority to agree to such a loan and that only a new government independent of SCAF control can negotiate such a deal. Finally, the issue of the presidential election illustrates more than any other example the short-sightedness and clumsiness of SCAF in governing Egypt.

It is quite obvious that SCAF was taken by surprise by the decision of the Muslim Brothers and the Salafists to participate in the elections by presenting candidates for the presidency.

But before doing so, the Muslim Brotherhood was dealt a blow when the Cairo Administrative Court ordered the suspension of an Assembly-appointed constitution drafting panel. At the same time, SCAF chose its alternative candidate – Omar Suleiman, 75, the former intelligence minister and Mubarak’s vice president during his last days. In the reality of Egypt of 2012, it was the wrong choice: Presenting a figure who was part of the defunct and hated regime whose military was involved in the repression of Islamists, who was a prominent advocate of the peace treaty with Israel and was known for his close relations with the American administration, represented a red rag to a bull. Suleiman seemed to still be accepted by the liberals and the secular, thus becoming a formidable opponent in the race for the presidency.

It took less than 48 hours for the People’s Assembly to adopt a law forbidding Suleiman from participating in the presidential race.

The law could not be implemented without the approval of SCAF. However, the Islamists’ goal to bar Suleiman from running was attained by the very Presidential Election Committee set up by SCAF to filter candidates for the presidency. Suleiman was barred on a technicality: the 30,000 signatures needed to allow him to run were not collected from each of Egypt’s 15 directorates. It seems he was short by 1,000 signatures in one directorate.

Out of 23 other candidates, the committee barred 10, leaving 13 in the race, including former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmad Shafik, and the head of the Muslim Brothers’ party, Muhammad Morsi. The 10 barred candidates may still appeal the ruling.

Whoever wins the elections on May 23-24 will have to devote most of his time to domestic issues and to the consolidation of power. This means that issues dealing with regional politics could be deferred to second place. A pro-military win would probably spark dissent and repression against the Islamists, whereas an Islamist as president would signify greater imminent danger to Israel. The issue of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty could become a “scapegoat” to divert attention from unsolvable domestic economic problems, seeking to blame outside factors for Egypt’s deteriorating situation. On the other hand, the Muslim Brothers have a historical dispute to settle with their former oppressors – the military.

The writer, a retired colonel, is a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ Institute for Contemporary Affairs (www.jcpa.org), was foreign policy advisor to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and deputyhead for assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

This is a condensed version of a report that appeared in the Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 12, No. 8, April 16.


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