Could Egypt’s Military Still Accept a Muslim Brotherhood President?

The Muslim Brotherhood rather than the old regime may be a better bet for a junta looking to restore stability while retaining control

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

Supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsy celebrate in Tahrir square after the Brotherhood claimed victory in the presidential vote, June 18, 2012.

By delaying the announcement of presidential election results that had been expected on Thursday, Egypt’s ruling military junta may have signaled that it faces the same dilemma that has faced the Muslim Brotherhood since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak: figuring out how much institutional political power to claim for itself. The Brotherhood may hold unrivaled support at the ballot box, but the generals still hold most of the power cards, including the ability demonstrated over the past week to entirely neuter the Islamists’ electoral advantages.

Indeed, the generals write the rules of Egypt’s political game, and they have constantly changed those rules on the fly. Last week alone, an allied judiciary empowered the junta to dissolve parliament and reimpose martial law with attendant powers of arbitrary arrest; the military further claimed the right to run the government and oversee the writing of a new constitution, and suggested that the next president may simply be an interim figure pending the adoption of a new constitution. There’s even a fear that the activist judiciary could reimpose the Mubarak-era ban on the Muslim Brotherhood participating in politics.

(PHOTOS: Election Confusion Cloaks Egypt.)

Still, while the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) hold the decisive cards, winning the game requires playing them with great care and skill — because power is not a prize or a commodity, but a balance between contending forces. Overreaching because you can could be a potentially fatal mistake — one that some say the Brotherhood itself committed.

After decades of operating in conditions of twilight legality or worse, Egypt’s Muslim Brothers were clearly taken aback by the unprecedented freedom of action that opened up for them after Mubarak’s ouster. They knew that none of their rivals could match their grassroots strength and electoral machine, and to the extent that power would be allocated via the ballot box, the Brotherhood was in the driving seat. But a leadership that had been divided over how to respond to the popular uprising that eventually forced out Mubarak struggled to formulate a political plan for a new environment in which the movement’s popular support and electoral strength was threatening to much of the rest of the political spectrum. If the Islamists were perceived to be seeking a monopoly on power through the ballot box, they risked a counterrevolutionary backlash by the military, with the tacit consent of some of the secular political opposition.

So, initially the Brothers vowed not to seek the presidency and to limit the number of seats they’d contest in parliament — and also to share constitution-writing duties with representatives of the full range of social and political interests in Egyptian society. Those decisions aimed to reassure political adversaries of the Brotherhood’s democratic and inclusive intent, but also reflected uncertainty over how to proceed in a new environment of democratic possibilities that had opened with the suddenness of an earthquake, but which were based largely on a political IOU from the junta to the crowds in Tahrir Square.

And in each instance, the Brotherhood appeared to renege: It emerged as the dominant force in the parliament elected over the New Year; it packed the assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution with its own supporters; and it entered candidates in the race for the presidency. Those decisions may have been panicked responses to suspicions about the agendas and actions of others, or they may have reflected a steady expansion of the Brotherhood’s ambitions. Either way, they prompted alarm among the Brotherhood’s secular rivals, and gave the military an opportunity to cloak itself in the mantle of guardians of a secular state, pushing back against elected institutions with the tacit support of many liberals and secularists.

(MORE: The Revenge of Egypt’s Deep State.)

“There was little outrage from non-Islamist parliamentarians when the legislature was summarily dissolved,” notes Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt scholar at Washington’s Century Foundation. “They seemed to treat the move as simply providing an opportunity for them to do better against the Muslim Brotherhood in a new election. Disunity between Islamists and others in the opposition has been continually exploited by the SCAF over the past 16 months. The military’s legitimacy and popularity in the eyes of a substantial share of the population, combined with the disunity of the political class, has allowed the generals to triangulate between the Islamist and secular poles of Egyptian political life, offering each side different things and playing them off against one another.”

But if the generals have improvised their way through what amounts to a soft palace coup over the past 16 months, their goal appears to have been restoring stability while preserving their control of the state machinery—not necessarily to restore the old order in its entirety. Indeed, the military unceremoniously wheeled Mubarak offstage when it became clear that restoring stability was impossible while keeping him in power. And they proved willing, also, to throw their old boss, Mubarak, in the stockades for a bout of ritual humiliation as an outlet for popular frustrations. They also conceded to parliamentary elections which saw the Brotherhood and other Islamists triumph, and the remnants of the old regime — derisively known as felool — trounced.

Still, the candidacy of former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, and the increasingly strident interventions of the judges, suggests that much of the bureaucratic core of the old regime would now like to ride the junta’s counterrevolution all the way back to the pre-Arab Spring status quo. That leaves SCAF facing a key tactical choice: To whom should go the enfeebled position of President.

(MORE: The Military Shows Egypt Who’s Boss)

The junta at one point seemed comfortable with a political cohabitation with the Muslim Brotherhood, albeit on the generals’ rules. The two sides negotiated arrangements for last year’s referendum and elections, but last spring, their understanding appears to have broken down. And the Shafik candidacy suggests that at least some in the junta would prefer to restore the bureaucratic heart of the old order, precluding any changes that might impede their traditional prerogatives. But announcing a Shafik victory — when the Brothers and their supporters believe they have won the election — could prove to be the final cut for the Islamists, who have seen all their other gains following Mubarak’s fall slashed away or neutered. That could provoke a very dangerous backlash on the street, and a new season of political turmoil that would threaten the generals’ primary goal of stability and potentially unite the Islamist and secular opposition in a common struggle against what would amount to Mubarakism without Mubarak.

A Shafik victory, in fact, may not necessarily be a vital interest to the junta, which could opt for allowing a Morsy presidency in the hope that acknowledging a largely symbolic win by the Brotherhood could defuse a showdown and even give the Islamists a stake in the stability of a new status quo. Even if they challenged military control, the generals would retain a tight rein, and limit the authority of elected institutions. Cohabitation with the regime might even suit the Brotherhood’s leadership, whose appetite for revolutionary confrontation with the security forces has, throughout the 16-month rebellion, been decidedly limited.

Clearly, though, the Shafik campaign and those behind it think the junta’s moves have put the Islamists on the ropes, and they want to press the advantage. The delay in announcing the election result suggests that the junta’s mind may not be made up. But the issue is one of tactics; the military has left no doubt that it has no intention of handing genuine political authority to elected civilians. The question simply is how best to manage the realm.

MORE: How Egypt’s Military Won the Election