How the Military Won Egypt’s Presidential Election

Almost immediately after polls closed, the junta announced directives on the constitution, lawmaking and, it seemed, the nature of the presidency. Activists are furious, but no one is likely to change the status quo

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Muslim Brotherhood supporters celebrate the expected win of their candidate, Mohamed Morsy, on June 18, 2012, after the first democratic presidential election in Egypt's history

It is history with an asterisk. Egypt pulled off the first democratic presidential election in its long history, choosing a civilian head of state to take the reins from the military generals who have run the country for more than a year. Based on the preliminary results that trickled in on Monday, the man who appears poised to become Egypt’s new leader is Mohamed Morsy, a U.S.-educated engineer. (Morsy has declared victory, though the official results aren’t expected until Thursday.) It is a potentially game-changing choice, because Morsy is an Islamist from the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood. After decades of authoritarian rule under three consecutive military regimes, Egypt could become a veritable success story for a democratic transition in the uncertain aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Except here’s the catch: elected or not, Egypt’s new President will have very little power.

Just minutes after the polls closed on Sunday night, as the ballot count got under way, Egypt’s ruling junta issued a constitutional declaration placing severe limitations on the powers of the new President. The military had previously promised a full transition of power to civilian rule after more than a year of political turmoil.

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Last week, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, packed with judges appointed by ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, ruled to dissolve the country’s first democratically elected parliament, which the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) had dominated. Then the military announced on Sunday night that it would assume all legislative control, as well as the right to appoint a committee to draft the country’s new parliament. The generals also said they would retain full control of the country’s armed forces, including its budget, and any involvement it chooses to have in security measures at home and abroad — provisions that quickly drew sarcastic online commentary from liberals who likened Egypt’s new presidential powers to that of the Queen of England. “I have termed this a coup,” says Nathan Brown, a political science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Arab politics. “It places the military in a position of oversight, in the short term over the whole political system, and then in the long term over the writing of the constitution.”

Indeed, it may be one of the smoothest coups in history. The Muslim Brotherhood has already expressed its outrage at the court’s dissolution of the parliament and the military council’s constitutional decree, declaring both illegitimate and vowing to convene the parliament on Tuesday and to hold a massive protest in Tahrir Square. “There will be a million-man march in Tahrir, and all the political and revolutionary fronts will be there. There will be concentrated public pressure,” Aisha al-Hadad, a member of the group’s foreign relations committee, told TIME on Monday. “The military council has no right to dissolve the parliament.”

Other Brotherhood members across the country, as well as supporters who had flocked to Tahrir to celebrate Morsy’s expected victory echoed that sentiment. “I believe there will be a very big fight on Tuesday,” predicted Mohamed Soudan, a party official in Egypt’s second largest city of Alexandria, using words that seem to set the stage for a potentially violent confrontation on Tuesday. But Brown says it’s a game of chicken. “The Brotherhood is a risk-averse organization,” he says, and with or without the parliament or full presidential powers, it is still faced with an unprecedented opportunity. The presidency isn’t fully neutered, he says; Morsy should be able to appoint ministers and initiate reforms, and it’s a unique opportunity for the Islamists to gain a legal foothold at the top of Egypt’s government. “They’ll thunder and they’ll make a lot of complaints,” Brown says, “but they’ll ultimately put up with a lot.”

And they may have to. The country’s liberals and secularists have so far appeared unwilling, or at least uncertain, to join the Brotherhood in its push against the military’s last-minute power grab. Their response to the dissolution of the parliament has so far been muted — some liberal MPs even welcomed it as a necessary step to bring the Islamists down a notch. And others said outright that the Brotherhood had been too greedy in its quest for power and Islamic law and deserved what it got. “The struggle now is between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military council,” says Mohamed Gomaa, a liberal youth activist who spoiled his ballot rather than choose between two candidates he considered equally bad. He says the liberals need “guarantees that it will be a secular state” if they are to stand by the Brothers as they did early last year in the popular uprising that brought down Mubarak.

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The Brotherhood, too, appears torn over whether — and how far — it’s willing to go the course alone. Officials at Morsy’s campaign headquarters insisted on Monday that Egyptians from across the political spectrum were on their side. But others, including Morsy supporters who had flocked to Tahrir Square in premature celebration, said they could handle the fight alone. “We don’t need them in Tahrir,” says Soudan of their critics. “There are a lot of people who profited from the previous regime and didn’t want the revolution to begin with. We don’t need these people in our revolution.”

And whether or not that second revolution comes may have everything to do with just how far the military is willing to push it. In short, “if they take away the presidency,” says Brown, “then the Brotherhood will have a really difficult choice.” On Tuesday, Cairo’s administrative court is set to rule on the legality of the Brotherhood’s FJP, based on a claim that when the party was licensed last year it stood in violation of the country’s ban on religious parties. A positive ruling would raise obvious questions for the legality of the country’s newly elected President. Analysts say such a ruling is unlikely to derail Morsy’s presidency, but it could present fresh obstacles for the Brotherhood ahead of the next parliamentary election, now slated for the fall.

Further adding to the uncertainty, the head of the military’s advisory council, Sameh Ashour, told al-Jazeera confidently that “the upcoming President will occupy the office for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees.” And indeed, Brown says, a far greater threat to the Brotherhood — and independent Egyptian politics at large — is the military’s seeming consolidation of power over the constitution and any legislative changes at a time when the country is seeking to define the very legal framework that will guide it through the years ahead. In essence, while the generals may have run the show from backstage for months, they have now openly claimed the authority to change the rules of the game on a whim — and that could include Morsy’s term in office. “It would be very logical to say that he was elected under a temporary constitution, so once a permanent constitution is settled, they’ll have to have new elections,” says Brown. At this point, anything could happen. “This is not going to be a summer of clarity.”

— With reporting by Sharaf al-Hourani / Cairo