Ahead of Egypt’s Presidential Runoff, Has the Military Junta Already Won?

After dissolving Egypt's democratically-elected parliament, the country's military government looks set to consolidate power, no matter the result of this weekend's presidential election

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Mamu Brabo / AP

An Egyptian protester chants slogans against presidential candidate Ahmed Safiq during a demonstration against the Supreme Constitutional Court rulings in Alexandria, Egypt, June 15, 2012.

Two days ahead of Egypt’s landmark presidential vote, the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court and military government dissolved the one major accomplishment of more than a year of political struggle and turmoil: the first truly democratically elected legislature in the country’s history. The reason, the court said, was that the election—which the judiciary had supervised—was unconstitutional. Few of the newly disenfranchised politicians and activists deemed the decision legitimate. Rather it revealed a clear manipulation by the junta, they said—a final nail in the coffin of Egypt’s nascent and short-lived democracy. But on Friday, a day that has become synonymous with protest in the Middle East since the start of last year’s hopeful Arab Spring, few were protesting.

“People understand that the ballot box will be the real judgment,” said Walid Mohamed, a T-shirt vendor on the edge of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. On Saturday and Sunday, Egyptians will cast their votes in the final round of the first presidential election since last year’s popular uprising ended the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak. And indeed, even if many view their options as grim—a choice between an Islamist from the Muslim Brotherhood and a former Prime Minister of the old regime—what else can they do, many argue, but see how the real test of Egypt’s political evolution turns out? Small crowds gathered outside of parliament, and a few groups of Islamists marched through Tahrir Square protesting the military’s preferred candidate, Ahmed Shafik. But, says Mohamed, “those people are the minority.” Mohamed says he will vote Shafik—not because he likes the former Air Force commander but because the military is the only viable choice and it always has been. “I knew back then, during the revolution, that the military would never let the country go,” he says. So the easiest option is to vote for the candidate they want, he reasons: a win for the Brotherhood would only bring a military coup anyway.

But for Shafik’s opponents, the reaction is muted for other reasons too; the main one being that the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, which dominated parliament and whose candidate, Mohamed Morsy stands to compete in tomorrow’s race, has chosen not to pick a fight—not now, and not yet.

(READ: Is Egypt’s revolution truly over?)

It’s not that the Brotherhood sees the Supreme Court’s ruling as legitimate. To many Islamists and liberals alike, the ruling reflected a military move to shut down the Islamists’ one real facet of power before a constitution has been drafted and before the next president’s powers have even been defined. Mubarak’s regime was fond of using the courts that way too, says Ahmed Rageb at the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo. “The supreme constitutional court has always been political,” he says. It has often served as a convenient cloak for the regime’s authoritarianism.

“For example, when the regime wanted to privatize many companies in Egypt, it was used to legitimize those actions,” says Rageb. The head of the court is a man who was appointed by Mubarak—as are many of the country’s top judges. Last week, the head of the country’s Judges Club, Ahmed al-Zend, remarked chillingly that had justice officials known the results of the parliamentary election—which resulted in big victories for Islamist parties—they would never have agreed to oversee it.

But analysts say that even in the face of such blatant bias going into the election, the Muslim Brotherhood has little option but to proceed with the vote. Sultan Al-Qassemi, a writer and prominent commentator on Arab politics on Twitter, says the Brotherhood dug its own grave. “I think it’s a real possibility that they might not win, only because they disenfranchised so many people,” he says. They pushed for too much political power too early on—for the majority share of parliament and positions in the transitional cabinet, frightening the country’s liberals and moderates. They failed to form alliances when they should have. They were too confident, he says. And the result is this: “There aren’t that many people who are vocally upset or unhappy about the dissolution of the parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood has not made many friends, and when the time came for others to stand with them and defend them, they’ve kind of lost all their non Islamist supporters.”

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Indeed, many of Egypt’s young liberal and secularist activists who championed returns to Tahrir Square over the past year to protest the military’s grip on power, reacted to the court’s decision by turning their anger on the Brotherhood. The Islamists’ impatienceand pursuit of Islamic law had marginalized the moderates and yielded a pro-regime backlash—ruin for their so-called revolution, some tweeted. A number of secular MPs even welcomed the dissolution of parliament as a necessary move to reel back the Islamists’ political gains.

Some prominent activists, including the Google executive Wael Ghonim and the 6th of April youth movement have pledged to back Morsy anyway, arguing that the Islamist candidate, while far from perfect, remains a better option than a return to the old regime. But other members of the secular elite mused online and in the independent media on Friday whether they were simply too divided or too exhausted to mount a meaningful and unified response to the junta’s manipulation of the political process.

Indeed, as the country heads into its weekend election, the question for many is not whether the military played a hand in ending the country’s first real democratic accomplishment. It’s how much further the military will be able to go.

Morsy told journalists and supporters on Thursday night that the courtdoes not have the authority to dissolve the parliament, and its decision only reflects continued efforts by the ex-regime to stay in power. But he stopped short of blaming Shafik or the military directly, saying instead that the only recourse now is the ballot box. “We will go to the polls. We will continue with the elections. And the results will be evidence of the will of the people,” he shouted from a podium at the Brotherhood’s downtown party office. Earlier in the day, his opponent, Ahmed Shafik, had delivered a far more jubilant response to the court rulings, (the first of which shot down a law that had aimed to disqualify him from the race), to a room full of dancing and cheering supporters. But if Shafik’s words sounded to some like a presidential acceptance speech, Morsy’s shorter speech carried a clear warning—and a lot more anxiety. If there’s any foul play in the electoral process, the people will return to the streets, he warned, and the revolution will be even “stronger” than the last time.

So what’s the breaking point? Some analysts have remarked that the dissolution of Egypt’s Islamist parliament seems eerily similar to a move carried out by Algeria’s military regime in 1992, which led to a decade-long civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives. But Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has actively participated in the country’s politics for years, has a reputation for pragmatism. And it has repeatedly shunned violence as a tactical option, despite decades of regime repression. The possibility that Shafik may win the election fair and square means that serious unrest initiated by the Islamists may only prove more self-defeating without the people power that led to Mubarak’s ouster early last year.

So what then? The most plausible path ahead could resemble something like Turkey’s “deep state” of the past century, as TIME’s Tony Karon suggested yesterday. In Turkey’s deep state, the junta ran the show for decades but masked their authoritarianism with the veneer of electoral politics. Some Egyptian activists and politicians, including losing presidential candidate and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh, have called the dissolution of parliament the first step in an obvious military coup. But a coup would require a transition of power. And what’s happening in Egypt is anything but. Instead, some
activists say the coup happened more than a year ago, when Mubarak’s military took the reins of power after the 84-year-old strongman agreed to step down. The successful dissolution of parliament and a Shafik win will only extend the status quo. Shafik, like Mubarak, is a military man with a military support base. And after a year and a half of democratic reforms accompanied by—as Al-Qassemi calls it—the “mirage” of a democratically elected Islamist parliament, Egypt may indeed continue on its course—the same course it has been on for a long time.

With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani/ Cairo