Analysis: Why Egypt's Fate Grows Murkier By the Day

Article Summary
A shocking endorsement from Islamists for a liberal candidate rocked the political landscape in Egypt this weekend. Mohammad Shuman on the internal crises tearing apart political parties, a constitution that has yet to be written and the uncertain future of of the civil state.   

Egypt’s tumultuous political scene may explode at any moment. The crisis is primarily linked to the ambiguities, fear, mistrust and rapid changes currently prevailing in the realm of Egyptian politics. Consequently, the discourse of Egypt’s various political powers has also been changing. So has that of the increasingly politicized Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which is an oddity given that the presidential elections are set to take place in 28 days, and the SCAF is expected to transfer power to a civilian government in 66 days.

The military, Islamists, secularists and revolutionary youth factions have all participated, to varying degrees, in creating and stimulating this crisis. Each of the parties simultaneously suffers from their own internal crises, which further exacerbates the general problem. The general problem also intensifies the internal ones, creating a cycle that continually erodes the overall situation. It is a sorry and confusing state of affairs, especially considering that the failed transitional period is ending and the upcoming events will feel like blades cutting into all of the parties’ necks. Everyone’s credibility is on the line, for they have all vowed to adhere to the date for the military to relinquish power.

However many of the tasks that they were supposed to accomplish during the transitional phase are unfinished: the constitution has yet to be written, leaving religion’s political role as undecided as the fate of the civil state and the limits of the army. In all likelihood, the constitution won’t be penned until after the presidential elections. This is a historically strange precedent among attempts at democratic change, for the president’s powers remain unknown to voters and presidential candidates alike. It has yet to be determined whether the political system will be parliamentary or presidential. An elected president will have to swear to respect—and have his authorities defined by—a nonexistent constitution.

The lack of remaining time for all parties as well as the prevailing uncertainty emphasize the critical nature of this crisis affecting Egyptian politics. Fifteen months after the beginning of the revolution, the desired changes have yet to materialize, and all factions are feeling the effects of the crisis which they themselves helped to create.

The effects are a result of their own narrow interests and their unwillingness to negotiate or make concessions.

The army, as represented by the SCAF, is suffering from a multi-layered and extremely complicated crisis; it is managing the transitional period, and therefore it is most liable for the political, economic, and security failures in the country. The Council has ruled through methods that guarantee the endurance of Mubarak’s regime, which is unacceptable to the revolutionary forces. Under pressure from million-man demonstrations, it has taken substance-lacking but revolutionary decisions which have angered the remnants of the old regime, the social powers and businessmen loyal to Mubarak’s’ regime. These critics accuse the military of handing over the state to the Brotherhood, failing to spread security and stability, and exacerbating the economic crisis. On another level, the military was involved in bloody clashes that may subject some of its leaders to internal and international prosecution. They may be  searching for a safe way out, in addition to searching for guarantees that safeguard the army’s powers and role in the political system. They also want to maintain their disproportionately large economic activities procured under Mubarak’s reign, creating interests that don’t fall under the purview of any form of popular control. The army is trying to achieve all of these goals without having to resort to violent confrontations or the use of threats, which it is adept at doing. At the same time, the Military Council’s growing political role is subjecting it to pressure from internal and external forces, and it is directing sharp criticism against the army in general.

The military’s crisis is multi-faceted for they want to hand over power and return to their barracks by the first of July—as was promised—but they are troubled by the political situation and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s attempt to monopolize the constitutional writing process and their efforts to control the legislative and executive branches—including the presidency—have confused the military and may have pushed them towards quickly ending their accord with the Islamist party. But the crisis here lies in the lack of political substitutes that can reach agreements. There is also no  possibility to reach a quick and satisfactory understanding with all Islamic and secular factions. This is especially true due to the lack of confidence and the prevalence of conspiracy theories among those who think that the military is responsible for all of the problems. On the other hand, there are those who think that the SCAF is being reactionary and haphazard in its actions.

The army’s confusion and their ongoing crisis do not compare to the problems suffered by the Islamist forces. They they have failed to put forward a political face that stands committed to Islam’s ethics and is uninterested in power and the media. The parliament, which they control, has also failed to solve the people’s problems or to discuss urgent matters. Even more serious was their formation of the Constituent Assembly,  whose membership reflect their hasty tendency to control power by excluding the remaining secular forces.

There is no doubt that the Brotherhood’s crisis and behavior differ greatly from those of the Salafists. The Brotherhood is transitioning from a semi-clandestine organization to working in the public eye—which led it to form the government—but surprisingly, their taste of power has led them to make numerous mistakes. These errors include nominating a presidential candidate who was chosen not on the basis of possible success, but to prevent Brotherhood votes from going to an outsider such as Abdel Moneim Aboul el-Fotouh, who had previously rebelled against the Brotherhood’s leadership.

As a result of its disagreements with the military and the increasing  possibilities of clashes, the Brotherhood returned to the streets two weeks ago. However its credibility is now questioned by all factions, for it had previously downplayed the legitimacy of the earlier demonstrations in favor of parliament and the constitution. The Brotherhood’s disagreements with the military and their aspirations for the presidency were the real motives behind the return to the streets, despite their revolutionary slogans. These motives are evident when you consider the spread of publicity that is directly endorsing the Brotherhood’s two candidates, Khairat El-Shater and Mohammed Mursi.

The Brotherhood’s crisis manifests itself in many issues; first through their younger member’s rebellion against the traditional leadership, and second through its failure to achieve any sort of palpable achievements, either socially or politically, that satisfy the revolutionary aspirations of the people. Then there is their inability to confront the military regarding a possible court ruling that would dissolve parliament. Finally, the Brotherhood is also unable to restore unity amongst its revolutionary partners, that perfect spirit that guarantees the revolution’s success, as disagreements have arisen between secular and Islamist forces. The divisions are widening due to the Brotherhood’s refusal to apologize for withdrawing from the demonstrations around Mohamed Mahmoud and Council of Ministers streets [where the military engaged in deadly clashes with protesters last year]. Exacerbating the issue is the  Brotherhood leadership’s criticism of the revolutionary youth forces.

The Salafist’s crisis seems different than that of the Brotherhood, for the Salafist movement has only recently entered the political arena and it does not possess the Brotherhood’s experience or strong organizational skills. Most importantly, the Salafists do not covet positions of power. They went along with the mistakes of the Brotherhood in its political agreements with the military to try and monopolize the  constitutional drafting committee. These mistakes can be overlooked, but their crisis lies in the overwhelming differences between their behavior and goals and the necessities of pragmatic politics. This resulted in key Salafist factions incessantly criticizing any participation in democracy as “heresy,” even viewing Mubarak’s ouster as an illegitimate action. Those condemning voices are gaining new ground daily from the the poorly performing Salafist representatives in Parliament. Some members of the Nour [Light] Party have even resigned because of their inability to reconcile their religious exigencies with those of politics.

Then there is  the crisis of the so-called secular forces and the revolutionary youth, which is a broad and very diverse movement that suffers from similar problems. Individual interests and the lack of organization have hindered many parties. The theoretical speeches they espoused were proven to be indifferent to the people’s concerns, further exacerbating the movement’s isolation. Liberal and Leftist proposals are also seen as being rigid and incapable of addressing society’s current problems. This transitional phase is being dominated by Islam, which is the basis of the prevalent culture. In addition to intellectual stagnation, there exists a generation gap and a monopoly held by older leaders that refuses to allow the revolutionary youth to effectively participate in the secular movement. This older generation is chiefly composed of the same elites that were in cahoots with the former regime, espousing the same perceptions and political culture.

The revolutionary youth’s idealism reflects an aspect of the crisis that is facing the secular movement. Some of them have answered the Brotherhood’s call to take to the streets while simultaneously refusing a constitutional drafting process that is under the rule of the military. Will they accept that it is written under the rule of an elected president whose powers are not constitutionally specified? Will they accept that this person, irrespective of his identity, could take part in specifying his own office’s powers and the nature of the country’s political system? The truth is, the confrontations between the military and the youth have warped the young generation’s,  and many other secularists,’ understanding of the foundational role played by the Egyptian armed forces. They also fail to understand the military’s economic role that greatly expanded under the reign of Mubarak. It is impossible to limit the army’s economic activities or political role and subject it to the mechanisms of democracy within a one or two year period. The process will be long, with success contingent upon spreading the culture of democracy, building institutions, and most importantly, establishing democratic mechanisms alongside acceptable levels of development and social justice. While the secularists were oblivious to these conditions, they were present in the minds of the Brotherhood. This led the Brotherhood to come to quick agreements with the SCAF, even though the army was expected to have closer ties with the secular forces.

The internal crises of all three factions continue to hinder dialogue and cooperation in dealing with the transitional period. As a result, time has expired before the goals of the period have been achieved. The strange part is that all of the factions refuse to acknowledge their responsibility in causing this crisis, content with accusing each other instead. This leads to a lack of self-criticism and an inability to rectify mistakes. In all probability, if it were to continue, this tense behavior and the wasting of time and effort on legal and legislative proceedings may lead to the perpetuation of many problems that are characteristic of the transitional period. These include the delay of a new constitution until after the presidential elections, itself an aberrant eventuality that raises a lot of fears about the persistence of instability, and the deterioration of economic performance. A continued economic downturn will increase social problems, which could pave the way towards a military coup or a rebellion by those most severely effected. It should be noted that both these of scenarios might bring the military and Brotherhood into a new accord that excludes secular forces, leading to a renewal of the crisis. There is no alternative to dialog and negotiation between the military, Islamists, secularists and the eventual president. There is also no alternative to adopting a new strategy for the post-transitional phase. This is something that all political forces must learn and live by.

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