In the series of extraordinary events since early February 2011, Mohamed Morsi’s electoral victory is rivaled only by the fall of Hosni Mubarak. It seems that more than eight decades after Hassan al Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian presidency — heretofore the exclusive province of the military establishment — is now in the hands of the Islamists. Yet for all of the celebrating in downtown Cairo, could the pandemonium in Tahrir Square be premature?
There is no doubt that Morsi’s election is momentous. Egypt will have its first civilian leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers packed King Farouk off to Italy aboard the royal yacht, Mahroussa, in July 1952. That is reason to celebrate. The military-dominated system that replaced the corrupt, foreign-dominated monarchy may have featured the structures of a democratic polity with its parliament, constitution, and eventually political parties, but it was authoritarian to the core. Consequently, the emergence of a civilian leader would be an important sign of positive change. The fact that Morsi is a member of the Brotherhood (though he resigned after being declared the winner) is all the more astonishing and a sign that perhaps the old order is crumbling. Yet despite all the tension of the last week and the historic nature of Morsi’s victory, in an odd way it seems a little too neat.
To be sure, the Officers preferred Ahmed Shafiq to Morsi. The former prime minister’s late May surge was no doubt the result of a broad effort among the remnants of the old regime, the intelligence services, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to revive the networks of the National Democratic Party. Yet, in the end, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the rest of the military leadership determined that fixing the results in favor of Shafiq was too risky. The results that the head of the Supreme Presidential Election Commission, Farouk Sultan, announced on Sunday afternoon were precisely the results that both the press and the Brotherhood reported almost immediately after the elections. To throw the election to Shafiq, who clearly lost by almost a million votes, would have produced an outpouring of anger and possible violence that the military must have concluded it could not control. It did not matter, though. Declaring Shafiq the winner despite the results was wholly unnecessary due to what the military clearly believes is its ace: the June 17 constitutional declaration.
The timing of the decree, just as polls closed on the second day of the second round of elections, suggests that the military’s action was improvised. As if sometime on Sunday afternoon, one of the officers turned to another and asked with alarm, “What if Morsi wins?” It was anything but ad hoc, however. Shortly after the fall of Mubarak, Field Marshal Tantawi asked for a translation of Turkey’s 1982 constitution, which both endows Turkish officers with wide-ranging powers to police the political arena and curtails the power of civilian leaders. In the June 17 decree, the military hedged against a Morsi victory by approximating the tutelary role the Turkish military enjoyed until recently. As a result, President Morsi does not control the budget; has no foreign policy, defense, or national security function; and has been stripped of the president’s duty as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, meaning he has no control over military personnel. In addition, having dissolved parliament in a move that has no legal basis, the SCAF now also functions as Egypt’s legislature. Finally, the military will be able to veto articles of a new constitution. So, for example, if the drafters of the new constitution include civilian control and parliamentary oversight of the armed forces, Field Marshal Tantawi can object, force the Constituent Assembly to review the article, and, if necessary, bring it to the Supreme Constitutional Court. Although in the abstract, the military has set out a clear procedure for adjudicating disputes over the draft constitution, the Officers clearly expect past patterns of civil-military relations to hold sway.
The military’s June 17th constitutional declaration was predicated on a combination of the Officers’ historic role in the political system, implicit threats, and the assumption that many Egyptians who fear the Brotherhood will support the SCAF’s bid to reinforce its autonomy. It may not work out as planned, however. President-elect Morsi is pushing back already. While paying homage to the Egyptian armed forces, his camp has already declared that they do not recognize the dissolution of the parliament or the legality of the military’s decree. During the heady moments of Sunday’s celebrations in Tahrir Square, the Brotherhood vowed that Morsi would take the oath of office before the People’s Assembly. Morsi’s supporters, the revolutionaries of the April 6th Movement, and others have vowed not to leave Tahrir Square until the actual handover of power scheduled for July 1st, recognizing it as their only leverage to hold SCAF accountable. They are also gearing up for a battle to defeat the constitutional declaration.
Clearly, as important as the election of Mohamed Morsi may be, Egypt’s struggle to define a new political order is far from over. The SCAF has been eager to relinquish the day-to-day administration of Egypt, but it has no intention of abdicating its central role in the political system in favor of the Brothers. With Morsi’s elevation to the presidency, the Brotherhood has the symbolic advantage, but it does not have the means to impose its will on the officers. The only likely result from this state of affairs is more uncertainty and instability.
Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square (Oxford University Press). Al-Monitor.
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