Regular readers of this blog would know that among my favorite approaches in analyzing politics is to identify the power poles that drive different political actors, and to frame major developments based on the struggle among these poles.
In the run-up to the 2011 Tahrir Revolution in Cairo, for instance, I described four power poles trying to outmaneuver each other in Egypt: the military-intelligence clique, personified by generals Omar Suleiman and Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, that had dominated the country since the fall of the monarchy; the forces of then-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s family, who wanted to anoint Gamal Mubarak and eventually supplant the military’s grip on the nation’s politics and economy; the loose coalition of liberal pro-democracy groups that include major figures like Mohammed ElBaradei; and the Muslim Brotherhood, whose vast grassroots organization is unparalleled in the country.
The Tahrir uprising was a genuine, spontaneous display of People Power that removed the Mubarak forces from the equation. In its aftermath, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood became the only credible power poles, with the disunited hodgepodge pro-democracy groups relegated to the sidelines. The ruling generals seized power in a silent coup, but were forced by the international community to facilitate a transition to democracy. When parliamentary elections were unsurprisingly won by the Muslim Brotherhood, the generals laid down a series of roadblocks designed to delay the transition and keep powers to themselves. By the time the Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi became the first duly-elected civilian president of the country, the generals had already suspended parliament, usurped legislative powers, and left presidential powers undefined and subject to the whims of the military junta. I thought Morsi would become a lameduck president. I was wrong.
President Morsi proved to be a formidable, and daring, politician. Taking advantage of an embarrassing military blunder that killed sixteen Egyptian soldiers in September, the President’s political operators steered the national conversation towards the view that the military has become so busy with politics it has neglected its primary duty of securing the country. He then sacked all senior generals and replaced them with officers more amenable to civilian rule, restored the Brotherhood-dominated parliament, and reversed the military junta’s decrees that clipped his presidential powers. It was President Morsi’s first coup, and it took the world by surprise. The President has been ruling Egypt by decree since then.
Now, two months later, President Morsi has pulled a second coup, this time against the country’s judiciary. In a series of controversial decrees, the President has declared his powers, along with the Constituent Assembly, which is writing Egypt’s constitution, to be outside the judiciary’s jurisdiction, until a new constitution is promulgated. In other words, President Morsi has declared that not only are his powers absolute, they are beyond reach, too.
One important context to President Morsi’s decree, now characterized by the Western press as a power grab, is that the Muslim Brotherhood seems to view the judiciary not as an independent branch of government but as an institution that has been infiltrated by pro-military and pro-Mubarak forces. This is understandable, considering that it was the Supreme Constitutional Court that, upon prodding by the military junta, arbitrarily dissolved the Brotherhood-dominated parliament prior to President Morsi’s election earlier this year. The same court had been scheduled to rule on a petition to dissolve the Constituent Assembly next week, and the President must have feared a court-ordered dissolution of the Assembly, hence he preempted it. The Assembly’s dissolution would have taken the Egyptian transition back to scratch.
Not surprisingly, President Morsi’s maneuver has enraged the various pro-democracy and anti-Islamist groups. Professional associations of lawyers, law professors, and judges have condemned the President’s attempt to curtail the judiciary’s independence, while activists have once again taken to the streets. In response, the Muslim Brotherhood has mobilized its own rallies to support the President, leading to occasional clashes between the protesters. This has resulted in another round of Egyptian instability that has spooked investors, leading to, among others, the plummeting of the country’s stock market.
Now, back to the quadri-polar paradigm mentioned above. The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the 2011 Tahrir Revolution has prodded Egypt’s power poles to align themselves on the basis of an emerging political cleavage between Islamism and anti-Islamism. Obviously, the current configuration is tilted towards the Islamists. On the other hand, two of the weaker power poles mentioned above, the pro-democracy groups and the remnants of the pro-Mubarak forces, provide some limited form of checks and balance against the Muslim Brotherhood. The other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military, is lurking in the background and may not be willing to join the fray anytime soon, although it remains to be the wild card.
President Morsi’s decree has reinvigorated the pro-democracy groups. They have formed a loose entente called the National Salvation Front, with Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, a darling of the Western press, as its leader. While they could barely muster enough crowds for their pre-planned rallies weeks before the President’s so-called power-grab, they are now mobilizing some of the biggest rallies Egypt has seen since 2011. Still, they remain without a firm machinery that can coordinate political strategy. Their extremist position– they refuse to negotiate with President Morsi unless he rescinds the decree, yet they are not offering any counter-proposals to address some of the concerns that led the President to promulgate the decree in the first place– would render them irrelevant.
In contrast, President Morsi’s coup has been meticulously crafted. As Professor Nathan Brown has noted, the decree includes some carrots for several political actors: An extension of the Constituent Assembly’s term, which the non-Islamist Assembly members have asked for; a re-trial of several officials involved in the violent attempt to infiltrate the Tahrir protests in 2011, which is designed to placate some activists; and compensation for the families of the so-called martyrs of the Tahrir Revolution. Moreover, President Morsi’s timing is perfect: He has just won some accolades for successfully brokering a ceasefire between Gaza and Israel, softening the effects of his anti-judiciary decree in the international community.
American politicians, like Senator John McCain, have come out with a strong condemnation of President Morsi’s second coup, going so far as to call for the withdrawal of American aid to Egypt. But the Obama administration has adopted a softer tone, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton merely asking President Morsi to re-examine his decree and hear what the Judiciary has to say. The President has obliged, inviting judges for some small talk, but he still didn’t budge in the end.
Somehow, the leaders of the judiciary have shown some weakness by conceding that, indeed, they have no jurisdiction over President Morsi’s acts of sovereignty, a vague concept that is somehow akin to what are known in democracies like the Philippines and the United States as political questions. This soft stance is probably a result of the calibrated diplomacy conducted on President Morsi’s behalf by Vice President Mamoud Mekki, Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, and Prosecutor-General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud– themselves former judges who used to figure prominently in the resistance against Mubarak’s efforts to subvert the judiciary during his regime. For his part, President Morsi has announced that his decree is merely temporary and is designed solely to ensure an efficient transition, although very few are convinced.
The only thing that could derail President Morsi is an intervention by that other formidable power pole, the Egyptian military. But my take is that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have already forged some sort of agreement, where the troops would stay in the barracks as long as the present dispensation keeps the military’s economic clout intact. There’s a similar arrangement in Thailand between the royalist military and the Thaksinite forces, who are erstwhile sworn enemies, so it’s not at all unlikely. Further, I suspect that the Egyptian military as an institution is seeing a generational changing of the guard: The old generals are giving way to younger officers who are willing to cede political power to the civilians, if only to move the nation forward.
Of course, I don’t know the Egyptian military enough to confidently say that these are not merely unfounded speculation; but it’s reasonable to say that the generals would have little incentive to confront the Muslim Brothers for now, especially since, thanks to the Gaza-Israel ceasefire, President Morsi has the confidence of the American government as well as the support of Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been showering Cairo with aid as part of Ankara’s attempt to cement its influence in the region.
Some years from now, students of politics would examine the remarkable emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood as the pre-eminent power pole in Egypt; and they will see a disciplined and meticulous strategy of being engaged in the democratic space, knowing how to take advantage of auspicious situations, employing carrots to rein in some actors to prevent them from reinforcing a competing power pole, cultivating some political capital in the international arena, and keeping a rival power pole at a safe distance.
Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is winning, and would continue to steer Egypt’s transition. The question now is where it would take the Egyptian transition. Would the Brotherhood build the theocracy it has long dreamed of, or would it emulate its new patron, Prime Minister Erdogan?