As Islamists Dominate Egypt’s Election, the Power Struggle with the Military Begins

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The Muslim Brotherhood is Egypt’s political mainstream, and its most significant challengers are the more extreme Islamists of the Salafi movement rather than the secular liberal forces that dominate the Tahrir Square protest movement. That appears to be the not-exactly-surprising verdict of the electorate, according to reports from the first two days of voting in Egypt’s protracted parliamentary election.

The official announcement of results from the nine (out of a total of 27) provinces has been delayed until Friday or Saturday, but the New York Times reports that the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party looks to have garnered some 40% of the vote, while a further 25% could go to the even more conservative Salafist al-Nour party. Despite the apparent Islamist majority, Brotherhood leaders hastened to reassure Egyptians Thursday that they have no intention of seeking a coalition with the Salafists, seeing secular parties as the more natural ally for their vision of a democratic Egypt. If anything, the Islamists’ share of the vote is more likely to grow than shrink, considering that the electoral districts that voted this week were the most urban, middle class and liberal.

So, despite the fury and drama of recent events on Tahrir Square, the election looks set to demonstrate that the liberal and socialist activists who have driven the protest movement remain a minority element on the wider Egyptian political landscape. And the results of that democratic test of the relative strength of Egypt’s various political currents could significantly alter the terms of the post-Mubarak power struggle in the months ahead. 

(PHOTOS: Amid turmoil, Egypt votes.)

The three-way standoff between the ruling military junta, the Islamists and the secular-liberal revolutionaries that has dominated Egyptian politics since the ouster of the strongman President Hosni Mubarak last February is reminiscent of a Hong Kong gangster-movie cliche: Three men, each armed with two guns, points one at each of the other two. The generals and the Brotherhood made common cause last March in the referendum that decided to hold the current election as the basis for writing a new constitution. (The liberals, fearful of a drubbing at the polls by the Islamists, wanted elections delayed, and a constitution written first by a committee of experts acceptable to the opposition movements.)

But the junta changed tack last summer, supporting liberal concerns that a strictly democratic process would give the Islamists too much influence, and agreeing to write a series of “supra constitutional principles” within which the elected drafters of a new constitution would have to work. But the generals overreached, seeking to codify the military’s independence from civilian political authority and oversight, and to accord it a de facto veto over matters it deems vital national interests. That prompted liberals and Islamists to unite against the junta and demand a faster transition to civilian rule. But the differences in the rival civilian political camps were also apparent as they pressed that demand in recent weeks: the liberals demanded the election be postponed and power be transferred immediately to a civilian government headed by liberal presidential candidate Dr. Mohammed ElBaradei, while the Brotherhood stayed out of the violent clashes over control of the Square and supported the military’s intention to go ahead with the election.

Throughout the triangular power game, each player has pursued its own agenda,  combining with one of the others only insofar as their interests momentarily coincided. So, how does the electorate’s verdict alter the balance? For one thing, it allows the Islamists to eclipse the liberals in the legitimacy stakes, via a legislature democratically elected in a huge voter turnout: The military could easily ignore the claims of Tahrir Square, vowing not to yield to a “slogan chanting crowd”; a legislature whose legitimacy has been vouchsafed by the junta itself can’t as easily be ignored. And the Brotherhood plans to use that legitimacy to challenge ongoing military rule.

(PHOTOS: Recent scenes of chaos in Tahrir Square.)

The polling stations had scarcely closed before Muslim Brotherhood leaders were publicly demanding that the new parliament be allowed to pick the prime minister and government. That call was rejected by military officials, who plan to go ahead with their plan to have handpicked former Mubarak Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri appoint a government that will rule until next summer’s presidential election. Ganzouri is reportedly struggling to form a government, with many of his choices declining offers of ministerial posts.

As far as the generals are concerned, their Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) junta fulfills the role of an executive president until a new one is elected next year, while the newly elected parliament will be granted governing authority comparable with Iran’s majlis. Notes Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center,

Parliament will not be able to form a government. But it will likely be able to withhold confidence from the Cabinet, oversee the budget, and pass legislation. Most importantly, the Parliament will appoint a committee to draft a new constitution. This constitution will determine the balance of powers between the executive branch and legislative branches.

But based on the incontrovertible legitimacy of the new legislature, the Brotherhood looks set to press the demand for a transfer to civilian rule — but to a body that reflects the will of the electorate, rather than one approved by those in Tahrir Square. Senior Brotherhood leader Essam el-Arian wrote Tuesday:

It is impossible for millions of Egyptians to go to the polls and vote for a parliament without authority. So the military council must now announce the handover of legislative powers to parliament, and the caretaker government must present any new legislation to the parliament for approval. The council must also affirm that any government that does not enjoy the confidence of parliament will not be able to remain in office; and that the formation and survival of a government will be decided by the parliament’s majority.

El-Arian also urged political parties to ensure calm on the streets, and to work together to prevent the military holding on to power, and build a democratic Egypt. But the military appears to have other ideas: Suddenly, the generals are more inclined than they seemed last week to respond the demands of the Square, almost as if the election never happened.

“In an effort to meet the demands of the revolutionary forces still arrayed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is expected to soon announce the formation of an ‘advisory council’ to assist the SCAF in administering the current transitional phase until a new president can be elected,” the government daily Al Ahram reported Thursday. “The proposed council would consist of 30 members representing all political orientations – with eight representing revolutionary youth – who would facilitate communication between the people, the SCAF and the government.”

That seems a pretty transparent bid to play off Tahrir Square against the parliament, hoping that the greater representation the generals can offer liberal groups in their “Council” compared with what they’d have in the legislature would tempt them into a new alliance of convenience to bypass the electorate’s verdict. Will the liberals take the bait? Some might, but others have made clear they have no interest in propping up the junta’s rule. But the power struggle looks set to intensify in the months ahead, even if it’s not waged primarily on the streets.

The Brotherhood insists it won’t seek a monopoly on power, preferring to work in coalition — and also that it doesn’t plan to put up its own presidential candidate. That may be a wise choice, not only to assuage the fears of foreign powers and the generals and maintain their support for a democratic transition, but also as a matter of pragmatic politics: the measure by which any government will rise or fall in a democratic Egypt is its ability to generate the economic growth that can make a dent in the endemic poverty and unemployment that helped fuel the revolution in the first place. Neither the structure of the Egyptian economy, nor the state of the global one, works in favor of those trying to meet the aspirations raised by the revolution. Governing Egypt, right now, is not something for which any prudent political party ought to seek sole responsibility.