5 Things the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Countercoup’ Tells Us About Egypt

President Mohamed Morsy's recent actions in Egypt is telling of the country's state of affairs — and the continuing struggle among its power players

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Amr Nabil / AP

Supporters raise a poster of Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsy as they celebrate in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago, in Cairo on Aug. 12, 2012

1. ‘It’s Never as Bad as It Seems on Twitter’

As analysts scrambled over the weekend to interpret President Mohamed Morsy’s decrees retiring the head of Egypt’s military junta and reversing its June 17 constitutional putsch stripping the presidency of much of its executive power, assessments veered all over the map: some called it a countercoup or a restoration, in a stroke, of democratic civilian rule; others warned that it marked the declaration of an Islamic state. Sobriety militates against such final or definitive conclusions, however. Indeed, George Washington University Arab-politics specialist Marc Lynch offered a sage tweet-length rule of thumb for analyzing Egyptian political developments: “It’s never as bad as its seems on Twitter.”

Power in Egypt remains in a state of flux, and Morsy has reminded us that we definitively predict outcomes at our peril. The Muslim Brotherhood alumnus had been elected in June to a presidency ostensibly stripped of much of its executive authority by Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) decrees, which were blessed by Egypt’s highest court in an alliance reminiscent of the “deep state” that arose in Turkey during the 1980s, when hard-line secular-nationalist generals and judges claimed effective veto power over democratically elected governments. Morsy looked like a lame duck, who had been set up to fail by a junta aggressively seeking to cement its own direct control over Egypt’s political future.

(PHOTOS: Celebrating the Brotherhood’s Victory: A New President Is Elected in Egypt)

By “retiring” Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Sami Annan and reversing SCAF’s June 17 edicts, Morsy has certainly made clear that he’s no lame duck. But even if he’s shaken up the power game within Egypt’s all-too-vaguely defined institutions, it’s far too soon to tell just how much authority he has amassed. There may yet be some pushback from within the military, although initial responses suggest that there’s considerable support even within the junta for kicking Tantawi and Annan upstairs, and none of the signals that the military could respond with a coup. Although reports suggest that the announcement came as a surprise to the two senior men, the field marshal was replaced at the head of SCAF by another member of the junta, the more youthful General Abdul Fattah al-Sissi, who is 57 — 19 years younger than Tantawi. Reuters quoted another member of SCAF, General Mohammed al-Assar, as saying the move had been “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.” This isn’t the first time that members of the junta are making conflicting statements, but it does suggest that the move to replace Tantawi has the support of at least some in SCAF. And by naming Tantawi and Annan as “presidential advisers” and awarding them Egypt’s highest military honor, Morsy appears to be tacitly offering them protection against prosecution.

Still, it would be a mistake to tout Morsy’s moves as a decisive victory in the struggle for power between the military chiefs and the elected government. “The quiet deliberation with which this has been done and the military’s apparent acquiescence, suggests broad internal military support for the move,” notes Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If the military remains quiet, one must assume that a deal has been brokered. The simple triumph of Islamist politicians over military officers would have aroused more resistance in the military.” Even if the generals don’t push back, the judges may yet choose to — although Century Foundation Egypt analyst Michael Wahid Hanna suggests the jurists might be reluctant to act if the generals are acquiescing, lest they provoke a backlash that leaves them isolated. Much will depend, also, on how Morsy handles the political balance of forces in the weeks ahead: having reclaimed control over the process of writing a new constitution, the decisive question may be whether he’s willing to build a broad-based coalition for civilian rule by accommodating the concerns of parties opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood.

So while the President’s lightning offensive has changed the dynamic, Egypt’s political struggle remains a long-term conflict between rival power centers whose outcome won’t be settled for months, or even years to come — and will, no doubt, be the subject of dozens of all-is-lost/all-is-won Twitter emergencies along the way.

(MORE: How the Military Won the Egyptian Election)

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