Around three months ago, I predicted that whatever the outcome of the presidential election that time, Egypt would remain under military rule. The logic was simple: The military, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had successfully consolidated power prior to the polls. The Council had the Supreme Court dissolve the Parliament– dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood– on technical grounds, granting the ruling generals the power to legislate. The president’s powers, on the other hand, were loosely-defined, giving the junta the ability to diminish the presidency. I thought Mohammad Morsi would be a lameduck president.
It had seemed that the only viable option for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood then was to negotiate a power-sharing deal with the ruling generals, which I thought would not have yielded much result since the Muslim Brothers would have to negotiate from a position of weakness. I was wrong.
It took only one embarrassing failure on the part of the military for President Morsi to outmaneuver the ruling generals. Sixteen Egyptian soldiers were killed in a security breach along the border in Sinai last month, exposing the army to widespread criticism. The prevailing opinion in Cairo at that time, which no doubt were either crafted or encouraged by the Brothers’ political operators, was that the military had been too busy meddling in politics that it had neglected its real job, which was to secure the nation. The imbroglio had zapped the Council’s political capital.
Sensing an auspicious opportunity, President Morsi decisively launched a daring civilian coup. He sacked the head of the Council, Field Marshall Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, who had been acting as Egypt’s de facto head of state prior to the President’s inauguration; the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Sami Anan; and the heads of the army, air force, and navy. These senior generals were replaced by officers widely perceived to be more amenable to civilian rule. The President also reversed the Council’s decrees that limited his powers, and, in a stinging rebuke to the Supreme Court, restored the Parliament, which had been writing Egypt’s constitution before its dissolution.
The speed with which President Morsi completed his coup took the Middle East, Washington, and all concerned capitals by surprise. But the biggest surprise was the fact that there was hardly any resistance from the military. To be sure, some kinks were ironed out: All the generals forced into retirement were decorated with national honors and retained as presidential advisers. But for an institution so used to substantially controlling Egypt’s government and economy, the Egyptian military’s meek acceptance of civilian rule was surprising. Some analysts suggest that it signaled a generational changing of guards in the Egyptian armed forces: The younger officers are more willing to cede power to a civilian authority and go back to their barracks, if only to move the nation forward.
What does this mean for Egypt? Well, despite this blog’s liberal leanings, I’ve always argued that letting the generals steer Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition was the way to go, if only to maintain stability. This early, President Morsi is already being implicated in the massive, violent protests against the West over an inconsequential American film that disrespects Islam. Does this signal the track President Morsi and the Muslim Brothers would take for Egypt?
Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood has emerged as the beneficiary of the revolution– and the subsequent silent coup— that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak last year. It has outmaneuvered its sworn enemy, and is now holding the key to Egypt’s future. But how would it dispense the enormous powers it now has? Has the Brotherhood matured enough to effectively govern a modern society, or is it still stuck in its medieval beliefs that are incompatible with democracy? Would it go the way of Erdogan’s Turkey, or would it eventually tread the path of the Ayatollahs in Tehran?