On the second anniversary of its heroic popular revolution, Egypt returned to the forefront of the regional and international scene with demonstrations that swept major cities. The revolution was able to bring down the head of the former regime, but not its social and economic discrepancies. Confrontations between the protesters and the security forces have intensified and inflicted dozens of casualties. The image promoted by the Muslim Brotherhood — as the country’s largest political force enjoying the Egyptians’ confidence and with an insignificant political opposition — has been shaken. The question now is: What are the implications of these events on the Egyptian political scene? We try to analyze the new Egyptian landscape and predict how the Muslim Brotherhood will try to contain the situation.
A failed transition
Egypt’s post-revolutionary transition has failed. Various political, economic, social and security powers struggled to maintain their power or participate in the new order, resulting in a highly chaotic scene. The transition started when the army pressed President Hosni Mubarak to step down in order to maintain order and prevent the demonstrations from evolving into a popular revolution that would topple the entire regime and replace it with another. There was a convergence of interests between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The two sides agreed on a roadmap that would reverse the revolution’s gains in return for the Muslim Brotherhood's reaching power.
Throughout the year 2011 and in spite of ongoing demonstrations, that roadmap was proceeding apace, supported by regional and international powers. The request to write a new constitution was rejected in favor of patching up Mubarak’s constitution and opening the way for parliamentary elections within six months, whereby the highly-organized and well-funded Muslim Brotherhood will come out victorious in exchange for them promising to preserve the economic and foreign policies of the former regime. So in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood formed an alliance with the remnants of the former regime. The two sides revised the constitution, installed the Brotherhood’s Essam Sharaf as prime minister, who also belonged to Mubarak’s policy committee, and allowed the military to retain its full privileges.
Parliamentary elections were held in 2011. The Muslim Brotherhood won 45% of the vote because of the above factors and because the party skillfully recast the main battle between the forces of revolution and the forces of tyranny into a battle between Islam and secularism in a way that served the Brotherhood’s interests. The Brotherhood did not use normal political means. They used the mosques to mobilize the masses against the secularists. However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s tendency to control all aspects of the state caused them to clash with some of the former regime’s power centers, which had previously allied with them. Other forces decided to stand on the sidelines after having secured their economic interests.
Some have mistakenly thought that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was wrestling with the Islamists. But the truth was eventually revealed when the secret deal between the two sides came to light. In the deal, SCAF would hand over political power to the Brotherhood and allow Mohammed Morsi to become president (a president with no constitution, no parliament and unprecedented presidential powers) in exchange for granting SCAF’s leaders safe exit and allowing the military establishment to keep all its economic privileges.
The erosion of the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy
Morsi was elected president by a slim majority when, in the second electoral round, the Egyptians were given a choice between a Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Mubarak’s last prime minister. But the situation did not stabilize. Morsi’s pronouncements have failed to legitimize a non-representative and unconstitutional constituent assembly or convince the Egyptians to support a hastily-written constitution that would set the foundations for a Sunni-style Velayat-e faqih.
The attractive religious slogans failed to alleviate the dire economic situation facing tens of millions of Egyptians nor to “Brotherhoodize” the state institutions and transform the popular uprising — at whose start the Brotherhood did not participate — into a Brotherhood revolution to unconstitutionally occupy state institutions and install Brotherhood members throughout the government bureaucracy.
The credibility of this hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that the ruling party, according to its representative at the presidential palace, is still an illegal group that is not registered and with absolutely no supervision on its funding or activities, unlike Egypt’s other parties or political currents.
But despite that, Brotherhood members are being installed throughout the government structure. In short, two years after the popular uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood’s legitimacy is eroding to the point where it can be likened to that of the former president. But does that mean that it is all over for the Muslim Brotherhood? The answer is not yet.
The Salvation Front and its structural problems
The opposition’s Salvation Front is suffering from structural problems related to its inability to translate the demonstrations against Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood into political victories. That is because of the Front’s loose structure: The Front is made of liberal, leftist, and nationalist currents, as well as parties such as Amr Moussa’s, and that diversity is hindering agreement on what specific steps to take.
The Front includes committed forces as well as currents that have joined only to serve a temporary interest. The Front does participate in demonstrations but never leads them. Case in point is the emergence of the “ultras” football enthusiasts at the forefront of the scene. We know from the court ruling on the Port Said incident (in which 72 Al-Ahly fans were killed in Port Said Stadium last year at the conclusion of a football match between Al-Masry and Al-Ahly clubs) that last Saturday’s massive demonstration was not caused by the harsh court ruling against those accused in the incident. In Cairo, there were sporadic clashes but no violent demonstrations. In Port Said on the other hand, violent clashes killed at least 30 Egyptians. The government is expected to ask the army to control the unrest because the police do not have the political backing for such an operation.
In short, the Salvation Front opposition alliance has until now been unable to lead or direct million-man demonstrations, which means that the Front cannot translate the Brotherhood’s dropping popularity into political gains. Since the government’s legitimacy is eroding and the Front is unable to translate that into political pressure, the Brotherhood will try to split the opposition, buy some time, and try to dilute the essence of the quarrel.
The expected political maneuvers
There will probably soon be calls for a so-called “national dialogue,” which Morsi has exploited in the past months to pretend that he was open to other political forces but without him providing any guarantees that the dialogue will succeed. It was simply a photo-op with the opposition while Morsi maintained the same policies. In effect, he had cornered the opposition: If the opposition refuses to engage in dialogue, the president would appear as seeking consensus while the opposition is being obstructionist. If on the other hand the opposition agrees to engage in dialogue, the dialogue will be used to dilute the opposition’s support among the masses and the revolutionary forces.
Now, after the demonstrations have intensified and gotten out of control through traditional police methods, especially in Port Said, the “national dialogue” trick may not succeed in deceiving the Egyptians once again (past dialogue sessions were among publishers, journalists, and lawyers who are in the Islamist orbit). Therefore it is more likely that the president would seek a “national unity government” that would include some Salvation Front members and that this government would oversee the upcoming parliamentary elections and manage the faltering government operations in preparation for the parliamentary elections, which are not guaranteed to be free and fair, and whose purpose would only be used by the Brotherhood to reclaim its eroding popular support.
It is likely that the Muslim Brotherhood’s deteriorating support would spur the Obama administration, which is the Egyptian government’s sponsor, to expand the Egyptian ruling coalition (made up of the Brotherhood, the military establishment, and the economic nerve center of the old regime) whereby it would include parties and movements currently in the Salvation Front, specifically some businessmen. That may help reduce the political tensions and get the Brotherhood off the hook, at least temporarily.
Therefore, the second revolution can produce political gains for the opposition only if the latter is committed and is restructured in such a way as to allow the revolutionary forces inside of the Salvation Front to effectively fight the Brotherhood government, which has betrayed the revolution, and accomplish the as yet unrealized revolutionary objectives.