Someone close to President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt explained how he finally managed to take power away from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It happened on a Sunday morning, 12 August, when the SCAF’s two most senior members, defence minister Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Sami Anan, were summoned to the presidential palace, and confined to a secure room where they couldn’t even use their mobiles. While they waited, Morsi swore in a new defence minister, General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi, in the next room. The official gazette had just published a decree annulling a supplementary constitutional declaration issued by the SCAF between the two rounds of the presidential elections, granting it extra powers to “protect” itself from a Morsi victory. After the swearing-in, Morsi told the officers they were dismissed: “It was hard to say which was greater: their astonishment or their impotence.”
This ended the state of dual power that had prevailed in Cairo since Morsi became president on 30 June, although no one had believed that such an unstable situation could last. “The press gave Tantawi’s pronouncements six columns and the president’s two,” said Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, an unsuccessful candidate in the presidential elections. “Before agreeing to form a government, [Prime Minister] Hisham Kandil asked for the army’s backing.”
“The SCAF was really only a paper tiger.” That old Maoist slogan is currently popular on the streets of Cairo, though a few weeks ago no one imagined that Morsi would manage to check an institution that had dominated Egypt since Nasser’s “Free Officers” seized power on 23 July 1952, and had controlled political life since Hosni Mubarak’s resignation on 11 February 2011.
In the first round of elections this 23 and 24 May, the Nasserist Hamdeen Sabahi, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abul Futouh (who has left the movement) and a number of leftwing candidates who had taken an active part in the January 2011 revolution together polled 40%. But divisions between them left in the run-off only General Ahmed Shafiq (23.6%), representing the old regime, and Morsi (24.8%), of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sabahi did not instruct his supporters how to vote, but Futouh came out in favour of Morsi, as did the April 6 Youth Movement and personalities such as the blogger Wael Ghonim and Alaa Al-Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and a staunch opponent of the Islamists. He justified his support: “We weren’t for Morsi. We were supporting the revolution.” Their main aim was to sideline the army.
Backing of the people
The SCAF grudgingly accepted the result, but nothing was set in stone. The nomination of the new cabinet, dominated by figures from the old regime, bolstered the impression that Morsi was in power in name only. Tantawi, chairman of the SCAF, said on 15 July that he would not allow a “faction” (the Brothers) to take over Egypt. There were calls for demonstrations against the new president on 24 and 25 August and the daily Al-Dustour even advocated a coup.
There was little chance of that: Legitimacy now resided in the ballot box and the streets, as was proved by the long queues of citizens waiting under a blazing late June sun to cast their vote. On the night the results were declared, happy crowds in bright colours -- many of them young, some wearing Anonymous movement masks, others carrying Brotherhood posters -- were not so much celebrating Morsi’s victory as the death of the old regime and the triumph of universal suffrage.
But, Morsi, who was presented as a dull apparatchik lacking charisma, was about to demonstrate genuine skill. His position gave him access to all echelons of the military, so he could see the army was riddled with secret factions. A generation of officers in their fifties aspired to a greater role: challenging the hegemony of the “generation of 1973” (a reference to the October 1973 war against Israel) and tackling the problems of the army as well as the country -- lack of professionalism, favouritism and corruption.
All Morsi needed was the opportunity, which came earlier than expected when jihadists attacked a military post at Rafah in Sinai on 5 August, killing 16 soldiers in cold blood. The attackers escaped and travelled 15km inside Egyptian territory before they were killed by the Israeli army while attempting to cross the border. This security disaster for the Egyptian army enabled Morsi to marginalise the SCAF. And so a page of the fledgling Egyptian revolution was calmly turned, and the army returned to barracks. It will continue to influence security decisions (especially in Sinai) and regional questions (Egypt’s relations with Israel and the US), but it will no longer be in overall control.
Political work to do
The political transition is far from complete. A new constitution is currently being drafted by the Constituent Assembly. It should be voted on by the end of November, then put to the country in a referendum, leading to fresh legislative elections (parliament was dissolved by the high court in June). The Constituent Assembly holds its sessions, in a Senate chamber near Tahrir Square, in front of the press: agreeing the composition of the assembly was difficult and even presented judicial challenges. It has around 100 members, half of them Muslim Brothers or Salafists. Some of the opposition boycott it intermittently. “We sometimes have almost medieval debates,” said commission spokesman and former parliamentarian Wahid Abdel Meguid, who also works on Al-Ahram. “But we’re making progress and even the Salafists have to recognise that none of our laws are contrary to Islam.”
In the same building, with its ancient Egyptian-style frescoes of scantily clad women, the former secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, for whom “religious problems are not a constitutional matter,” can rub shoulders with Nader Bakkar, the media-savvy spokesman for the Salafist Nour Party. There are women (some in headscarves, others not), generals, a small number of young revolutionaries, Coptic priests, representatives of Al-Azhar University, a peasant in traditional dress lobbying for agricultural support. This could be a parliamentary assembly anywhere, yet in spite of profound differences, the debates, chaired firmly by the respected judge Hossam Al-Gheriany, are good-natured.
At the core of the discussions is the place of sharia and especially article 2 of the constitution. In 1971 President Sadat had a paragraph included in the constitution stipulating that sharia would be a major source for legislation. A 1980 amendment turned it in to “the” major source for legislation. The Salafists asked the committee to replace “sharia” with “the principles of sharia,” a potentially worrying extension. Abandoning that idea, they then demanded that the Constitutional Court cede its responsibility for adjudicating on a law’s conformity with sharia to Al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam. Ironically, “this would be a ‘shiisation’ of Egypt,” I was told. “Such a reform would give a religious body the final say over the country’s laws, as in Iran.” This is out of the question for the Salafists, who are profoundly hostile to Shiism. Al-Azhar refused to take on the role.
Will a compromise emerge? An opponent of the Islamists said: “Morsi has an interest in the constitution being balanced so as not to create problems for his presidency. It would be very bad for him if all the non-Islamists quit the commission in protest.”
Fears for the future
These debates don’t generate much public interest, even if they concern important principles relating to religion and equality among citizens, and between men and women. Indirectly, other questions are emerging. Will the Brotherhood seize power? Is the state being reshaped in the Brothers’ image? Will Egypt turn into a new Iran?
The Brotherhood is firmly rejected by large sections of the people, and this rejection, contrary to what many of its members believe, is not just the result of a campaign of misinformation. The Brotherhood (remarkably well organised and supported by devoted activists who have often served time in prison) is often considered, even by some practising believers, as cynical, mixed up in political machinations and more concerned with its own interests than the country’s. Even the Salafists are critical and accuse the Brothers of wanting to oppress in the name of religion those whom they despise. The Brotherhood’s role in the revolution is not contested -- though it jumped on the bandwagon -- but its compromises with the SCAF throughout 2011 have caused resentment. Its decision to run in the presidential elections, contrary to earlier promises, has worsened distrust.
The Brotherhood’s star has dimmed: Morsi won only 5.7m votes in the first round of the presidential elections; his Freedom and Justice Party polled almost double that in the legislative elections in late 2011/early 2012. In the second round General Shafiq got 12m votes, more in rejection of the Brotherhood than from nostalgia for the old regime.
Café Riche is in a 19th century district of central Cairo redolent of the French cultural influence of the past: Its heyday was just after the first world war, when revolutionaries campaigning for independence would meet in a room they entered through a secret door. I met there with the leader of the Social Democratic Party, Mohammed Abul Ghar, 72, a well-known gynaecologist. He had just returned from the International Socialist Congress in Cape Town, which had at last decided to exclude Mubarak’s party. He recalled his long-running battle with the Brotherhood and his clashes with it at university: “I didn’t vote for Shafiq or for Morsi, but a victory for Shafiq would have led to violence and another uprising, this time directed by the Brothers. It’s in everyone’s interest that they get into government, where they will have to act. They’ll make mistakes and take unpopular decisions.”
A few days earlier, Morsi had confirmed that an agreement would be signed by the end of the year for an IMF loan of $4.8bn at an interest rate of 1.1%. Brothers and Salafists who had denounced this in principle a few months earlier justified this departure from the Islamic prohibition on borrowing with interest using arguments one might call Jesuitical.
“Islam is the solution.” For decades, the Brotherhood has been able to hide behind this slogan and avoid taking a position on most vital questions -- even if it found itself with Mubarak on winding up land reforms. Now in power, it is no longer able to sidestep a deteriorating economic and social situation, exemplified by strikes in factories, schools and hospitals. The Brothers have no solution apart from a form of economic liberalism less corrupt than that adopted under Mubarak’s brand, which they always defended.
Morsi’s best hope is still that the opposition will be divided. As time goes by, that opposition forms diverse coalitions, whose leading figures move easily from one to another, and may be members of several at the same time. Even Hamdeen Sabahi, the candidate who managed to galvanise progressive public opinion during the presidential campaign, is having difficulty putting forward a coherent programme. As an observer said, “the central committee of his Popular Current includes representatives of liberal, socialist and Nasserist parties who don’t agree about anything, whether it’s the role of the private sector or the place of social justice, or relations with the US and Israel.” An independent Nasserist activist agreed: “How can liberals and Nasserists unite against the Islamists when they disagree about everything else?” The problem is forging a democratic system -- impossible without integrating the Brotherhood into the political game -- while affirming an independent social and foreign policy programme. The left has not yet found the answer.
The way ahead for the Brotherhood is far from clear. The economic and social challenges are huge; the old regime still has a solid base in the apparatus of the state, and it is hard to change structures and mindsets overnight -- for instance, teaching a police officer who has arrested someone that his first job back at the station is not to beat them. The president has pardoned everyone imprisoned by the army on political grounds, but will he fight persistent violations of human rights?
The Brotherhood’s unconditional loyalty to the murshid (the supreme guide) is, for the first time, no longer guaranteed. It took three days of meetings of the majlis al-shura, the organisation’s highest body, to get his participation in the presidential election ratified, and even then by a slim majority. For the first time in its history, the Brotherhood has experienced major splits with the creation of Abul Futouh’s movement and the Wasat (Centre) Party, and the younger generation are restive.
There are as many obstacles to the organisation seizing control of the state in the way Mubarak did. “To achieve hegemony over the state, the Brothers need to have real vision,” said Alaa Al-Din Arafat, director of studies at Cedej, the French-sponsored centre for economic, social and judicial study in Cairo. “In 1952, the Free Officers were able to build their hegemony and rally the elites around the objective of national independence and the construction of an independent economy. When Sadat seized power in 1970, he used the defeat of 1967, and proposed opening up the economy and a multi-party system. The Brothers don’t have a global plan -- not even in international affairs -- that would permit them to win over different echelons of the state apparatus.”