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Long way to go

Published : Jul 27, 2012 00:00 IST

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Celebrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 24 after Mohamed Morsy was declared elected as President. He narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafiq, who was Hosni Mobarak's last Prime Minister.-AMR NABIL/AP

Celebrations at Cairo's Tahrir Square on June 24 after Mohamed Morsy was declared elected as President. He narrowly defeated Ahmed Shafiq, who was Hosni Mobarak's last Prime Minister.-AMR NABIL/AP

It is difficult times ahead for the countrys nascent democracy as President Mohamed Morsy and the junta appear to be on a collision course.

Egyptians in their tens of thousands, encamped at Cairos Tahrir Square, were on the steep edge when Farouk Soltan, the head of the Supreme President Election Commission (SPEC), on June 24 began his much awaited address to announce the winner of a tight presidential contest that had pitted the Islamist candidate Mohamed Morsy against Ahmed Shafiq. Soltans meandering narration added to the high drama palpable at the square, for the SPEC had already delayed the declaration by several days. The agonising wait provided enough time for the spread of rumours that the SPEC was taking extra time to fix the results in favour of Shafiq, a former air force chief and an ally of the military junta. Morsy claimed, on the basis of reports from polling agents of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he belongs, that he had won. Not inclined to lose the psychological battle, Shafiq also went ahead and declared himself the winner.

Soltans weighty preamble of a full 45 minutes, therefore, raised the levels of irritation and suspense to extreme heights. By the time he came to the point, a hushed silence had fallen on the square. It gave way to raucous celebrations after the crowd heard that Morsy had created history by becoming Egypts first elected President. For the next few minutes, a giant roar seemed to overwhelm the square, where thousands waved the national flag, while some sought vantage points to express their joy.

Morsys hard-fought victory was a giant moment for the Muslim Brotherhood, which had after 84 years of its bloodstained history managed to catapult its man into the highest office of the land. But the party had little time for celebrations. The Islamists seemed fully aware that notwithstanding the spontaneous rejoicing at Tahrir Square, a grim struggle for political turf was intensifying with each passing day. Indeed, the Muslim Brothers were actually pushed on the defensive by a crafty military top brass represented in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Undermining of authority

Ahead of the run-off, SCAF had worked systematically to undermine the Muslim Brotherhoods authority. It first targeted the legislative powers of the Muslim Brothers, which they had secured by winning a spirited parliamentary election in November. Just ahead of the presidential election, SCAF dissolved the parliament.

The bombshell was delivered after Egypts highest court ruled that the composition of one-third of the legislature was unconstitutional. The legal battle around 33 per cent of the lawmakers had commenced earlier when SCAF reluctantly endorsed the Muslim Brotherhoods plea before the parliamentary elections that candidates belonging to political parties should be allowed to contest one-third of parliamentary seats that had been previously reserved for independent candidates. While allowing parliamentary elections, the Election Commission, nevertheless, sought the constitutional courts opinion on the legality of the move.

On June 14, the court ruled that elections to these 33 per cent seats were unconstitutional. SCAF seized the opportunity to dissolve the entire parliament, overlooking other possible options such as re-ordering the elections that had been declared unconstitutional. Many saw it as a judicial coup that had successfully allowed the junta to appropriate legislative powers at least until a new, and possibly less hostile, legislature emerged through fresh parliamentary elections.

SCAFs next move was to grab presidential powers before an elected President assumed office. While the counting in the run-off was still under way, it released a notorious supplement to an earlier constitutional order that had been compiled to steer Egypts post-Mubarak transition. The supplement subordinated the presidency to SCAF. The move in effect formalised the militarys status of a state within a state. The provision implied that the President was not the supreme commander of the armed forces. Consequently, he was not empowered to declare war or order the militarys deployment in an internal contingency without the approval of SCAF. As such the supplement negated the concept of civilian control over the military, which is the very essence of a civil state.

The military also cast its long shadow on the countrys constitutional future: the supplement stated unambiguously that SCAF could play an interventionist role while the writing of a new Constitution was still in the works. Consequently, the provision put in mortal danger the existence of the 100-member Constituent Assembly picked by a democratically elected parliament, should the Assembly dare to challenge the militarys ever-tightening grip on power.

Fully conscious of how the military is trying to grab power, the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to fight a spirited rearguard action. Clearly, at the present juncture, the Muslim Brothers are not ready for an open confrontation with the security forces. This was reflected in Morsys first televised address after his election to the presidency. He praised the military, and after introducing suitable caveats, went the extra mile to reach out to the police, the Brotherhoods chief tormentor during the Mubarak years.

I salute the honourable policemen, my brothers and sons, some of whom mistakenly think I do not regard them highly, he said. He added: Those who commit any crimes are subject to law, but the honourable policemen, who are the vast majority, deserved to be saluted and appreciated. They will have a big role to play in the future to protect and secure the country.

Conciliatory tactics

The President-elect also reached out to the judges, presumably in the hope that a non-hostile judicial establishment can become a powerful tool to check the overreach of the military. Confronted by an existential threat to his fledgling presidency, Morsy also held out an olive branch to the United States and Israel. We will honour international treaties and agreements and will create balanced international relations based on mutual interests and respect. We will protect our borders and reject foreign meddling in our domestic affairs, he said. The message was clear that despite serious internal pressures to reverse its position, Egypt would continue to honour its controversial peace treaty with Israel, which had followed in 1979 from the Camp David accord. The President-elect also had words of reassurance for the Coptic Christians, who form 10 per cent of the population and had voted in droves for Shafiq fearing a hostile surge of radical Islam under the Muslim Brotherhoods watch.

It is unclear whether Morsys conciliatory tactic will have any lasting impact, despite some signs of encouragement from the judiciary. In a surprising move on June 26, the Supreme Administrative Court nullified a recent decree from SCAF that allowed the military police to arrest civilians and haul them for trial in shady military courts. The decree, issued days ahead of the presidential run-off, triggered an outcry among pro-democracy and human rights activists, many of whom had already become victims of torture and covert military trials.

Morsys conciliatory speech notwithstanding, the Muslim Brotherhood is preparing feverishly for battles for political ascendancy with a combative military high command. The Muslim Brothers know that at the end of the day their chances against the military will depend on their capacity to mount massive street protests in a sustained manner. This will not be possible unless the Islamists can convince pro-democracy campaigners of the liberal and leftist persuasion to join the protests as equal partners. After all, the election results were not only an advertisement for the triumph of the Islamists, but, in equal measure, also a demonstration of the limits of their influence in ideologically divided Egypt. The results made it amply clear that Egypt is evenly split between Liberals and Islamists. Morsys narrow victory margin can also be explained by the absence at polling stations of young liberal and secularist voters, who preferred to stay at home, disenchanted with both the Islamists and the power-hungry military elite.

It was therefore not surprising that even before the presidential election result was out, Morsy announced the formation of a National Front with activists of all ideological persuasions committed to the advancement of Egypts budding democracy. In less than a week after its formation, the Front adopted a partnership document where its objectives were more sharply defined. The document pledged that Morsy would form a presidential council and an inclusive national salvation government that would include elements across Egypts political spectrum. This exercise would include the appointment of a Prime Minister who would be an established non-partisan and independent national figure.

In anticipation of the turbulence ahead, a crisis management team would also be formed. It would deal with the current situation and ensure that real power is handed over from the military to the executive. The document rejected the supplementary constitutional declaration as well as SCAFs decision to dissolve parliament. It also vetoed the formation of a National Security Council, a new decision-making body formed by SCAF where military and intelligence officers outnumber members of the executive.

With the formation of an ideologically inclusive National Front, the stage is now set for prolonged street protests representing a broad array of pro-democracy forces. Tahrir Square is expected to remain the focal point of the upcoming protests, which began even before the election result was announced. While a large number among the surging crowds left after celebrating Morsys historic triumph, a hard core has remained behind in the square, prepared for a long haul.

While the pro-democracy campaigners are determined to continue with their defiance, success will be hard to achieve, for the military will dig in not only to defend its elevated position in society but also to protect its vast commercial empire, built steadily over decades of dictatorship. By now, the realisation has sunk in among the protesters that Mubaraks fall only marked the political demise of a dictator, but the dictatorship, built on the foundations of a network of crony capitalists, is fully alive. Led by the military junta, it is unprepared to depart from its gilded towers and give up without a fight.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jul 27, 2012.)

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