Lion's Den: What’s really happening in post-Mubarak Egypt?

Understanding Egyptian politics means penetrating the characteristically Mideastern double game – one played out by military and Islamists.

Pro-Mubarak demonstration in Egypt 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pro-Mubarak demonstration in Egypt 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As Egypt lurches into a new era, a look at its complexities helps one understand the country’s likely course. Some thoughts on key issues:
The spirit of Tahrir Square is real and alive, but exceedingly far from the halls of power. Revolutionary ideas – that government should serve the people, not the reverse; that rulers should be chosen by the people; and that individuals have inherent rights – have finally penetrated a substantial portion of the country, especially the young. But for now, they are ‘dissident’ ideas, firmly excluded from any operational role.
A military court sentenced liberal blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in jail.
Military rule will continue. You see, soldiers did not seize power with Hosni Mubarak’s departure two months ago; they did so in 1952. That’s when the Free Officers overthrew the constitutional monarchy and took office. One senior military man followed another – from Naguib to Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak to Tantawi – in an unbroken succession over 59 years. With time, the military expanded its grip to include the economic realm, producing everything from television sets to olive oil and thus acquiring control over a sizable portion of Egypt’s wealth. Egypt’s soldiers have become far too accustomed to power and the good life to give up these perks. They will do whatever it takes, be it purging Mubarak, throwing his sons in jail, banning his old political party, changing the constitution or repressing dissent, to keep power.
The military is not secular. From the first Free Officers in the 1930s to the recent re-affirmation of Shari’a (Islamic law) as “the principal source of legislation,” Egyptian military leaders have consistently displayed an Islamist orientation. More specifically, the Free Officers emerged out of the military wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and through the decades have been in competition with the civilian wing. As analyst Cynthia Farahat writes in the Middle East Quarterly, their rivalry “should be understood, not as a struggle between an autocratic, secular dictatorship and a would-be Islamist one, but a struggle between two ideologically similar rival groups hailing from the same source.”
The Muslim Brotherhood is less formidable than its reputation suggests. It’s not a powerhouse. The organization suffers from major problems. First, hot-headed Islamists despise it. Al-Qaida recently blasted it for taking part in elections and ridiculed it for being on the path to becoming “secular and falsely affiliated with Islam.”
Second, the Brotherhood is weak on the ground. Hesham Kassem of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights notes that its membership does not exceed 100,000 which, in a country of 80 million, means it “is not really a grass-roots movement” but a coddled institution. Genuine political competition should diminish its appeal.
FINALLY, UNDERSTANDING Egyptian politics means penetrating the characteristically Middle Eastern double game (as in Iraqi and Syrian politics) – one played out here by the military and the Islamists. Note its contrary elements:
Routine military-Islamist cooperation. The military has, Farahat notes, “subtly colluded with Islamists against their more democratically inclined compatriots and religious minorities, notably the Copts.”
One of many examples: On April 14, a human rights conference critiquing the military for hauling civilians before military tribunals was twice interrupted. First by a military officer worried about “indecent women” and second by Islamists angry about inappropriate discussion of the military.
Who is who? Roles have became nearly interchangeable. Likewise, the new military leadership permitted Islamists to form political parties and released Brotherhood members from jail. Conversely, Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood leader, praised the armed forces, and his organization endorsed the army’s March referendum.
Egypt’s lower chamber, the People’s Assembly, is a tool for combating the Muslim Brotherhood.
The government exploits fears of the Brotherhood. The military benefits from worries, both domestic and foreign, of an Islamist takeover. That prospect justifies not only its own continued domination, but also excuses its excesses. The military has learned to play Islamists like a yo-yo. For example, Mubarak cunningly allowed 88 Muslim Brothers into parliament in 2005; this simultaneously showed the perils of democracy and made his own tyranny indispensible. Having established this point, he allowed just one Muslim Brother into parliament in the 2010 elections.
In brief, while the modernity of Tahrir Square and the barbarism of the Muslim Brotherhood both have long-term importance, in all likelihood, the military will continue to rule Egypt, making only cosmetic changes.

The writer ( is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.