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Battle of wits

Print edition : Aug 10, 2012

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This picture, released on June 30, shows SCAF chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, presenting the "Shield of the Armed Forces", the Egyptian military's highest honour, to President Mohamed Morsy in a military base in Cairo.-HO/AFP

This picture, released on June 30, shows SCAF chief Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, presenting the "Shield of the Armed Forces", the Egyptian military's highest honour, to President Mohamed Morsy in a military base in Cairo.-HO/AFP

The Muslim Brotherhood under Mohamed Morsy has a tough task in keeping the military junta at bay.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt continued to mount, during the run-up to the recent presidential election, a spirited campaign to rescue as much as possible of the democratic space that had been grabbed by the countrys military top brass. The election was eventually won by the Brotherhoods low-profile veteran Mohamed Morsy. Over the past few weeks, Morsy has become the face of the Islamists riposte, astutely configured by the Brotherhood, to push back, as much as possible, the covetous military, which wants to control to the maximum the key levers of political power.

In its fightback, the Muslim Brothers seem to have adopted tactics that have been woven around two principles. First, the counter-attack against the military has to be so calibrated that a complete breakdown of ties with the generals is avoided. But, at the same time, their riposte should not be so feeble that it disillusions their supporters into believing that their leaders are waging a farcical war, aimed only to play to the gallery.

In trying to strike the right balance between rash political adventurism and passivity, the Muslim Brothers have used their political tool kit well. On most occasions, they have anchored their defiance of the military to principles that are well founded in the countrys interim basic laws. Nevertheless, on some occasions they have not hesitated to pursue a more populist course when, in their view, a direct confrontation with the generals could become counterproductive.

The grim tussle between the Muslim Brothers and the junta, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), acquired high visibility ahead of Morsys oath-taking ceremony. While the presidential votes were still being counted, the military released a draconian order that denied the President any real power, especially over the military. The move, seen by many independent jurists as illegal, capped another shocker by the SCAF which had earlier decreed the dissolution of Parliament and the transfer of all legislative powers to the military. The SCAFs order was also unambiguous in stating that the President-elect would take his inaugural oath before the jurists of the Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest court of the land.

The militarys order pushed the Muslim Brothers on the horns of a dilemma. In case they agreed to the SCAFs directive that Morsy take his oath before the Supreme Court, it would mean imparting some legitimacy to the order that the Brothers had so firmly opposed. But if the Islamists rejected the SCAFs move, it could provoke an immediate backlash from the generals and threaten Morsys presidency even before it was born. A combination of populism and political compromise, however, saved the day.

Before he presented himself before the Supreme Constitutional Court, Morsy appeared at Tahrir Square, the peoples court, which had become the icon of the uprising that toppled the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. It was amid his supporters who had thronged the square in their thousands that Morsy took his presidential oath before heading to the Supreme Court where the judges, who had earlier passed a dubious order that had led to the dissolution of Parliament, were waiting for him.

With Morsys anointment as President out of the way, the battle of wits between the politically savvy Muslim Brothers and the crafty SCAF has entered its next stage.

Soon after Morsy had moved to the opulent, Mubarak-era presidential palace in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis, the Muslim Brotherhood fired its next salvo to pull back some of the legislative powers that had been earlier lost to the generals.

The SCAF had wrested control of all law-making powers after dissolving Parliament during the run-up to the presidential election. The SCAFs controversial decree, which had inflamed emotions, were based on a judgment of the Supreme Court that had pronounced that elections to one-third of the seats in the Peoples Assembly the lower house of Parliament were unconstitutional. On the basis of this, the SCAF took the extreme step of dissolving the entire Islamist-dominated Parliament, disregarding other possible options such as arranging a re-election to those seats whose constitutionality had been questioned by the court.

Rejecting the SCAFs ruling, Morsy, now President, summoned the Peoples Assembly for a session. Parliament met for a few minutes and vowed to challenge its dissolution in another court.

In this political tug of war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the junta, the judicial establishment, now showing deep divisions, appears to have become a serious casualty. Soon after the dissolved Parliament had been summoned, the Supreme Court pronounced the move illegal. But that, in turn, triggered a firestorm within judicial bodies that seemed, like most other Egyptian institutions, deeply divided along loyalty lines the former regimes supporters and opponents.

The battle lines within the judiciary have been drawn between the Judges for Egypt Movement, supporters of the anti-Mubarak camp, and the Egyptian Judges Club. The Judges for Egypt Movement, made up of reformist judges, had earlier taken the initiative to oversee the recent presidential election. The Egyptian Judges Club, departing from its earlier progressive orientation, has turned increasingly conservative since 2009 when Ahmed El-Zend became its leader.

Hours after Morsy issued the decree to reinstate Parliament, El-Zend warned the President that he would face severe measures unless he backtracked within the next 36 hours. The [presidential] decree goes against the ruling of the High Constitutional Court, which is the highest judicial authority in Egypt, El-Zend said at a Cairo press conference. But his words provoked an equally vociferous response from the pro-revolution judicial camp, once again mirroring the incompleteness of the Egyptian revolution, which is yet to overcome the competition for institutional space between a fading old guard and new forces seeking change. Walid Shoraby, spokesman for the Judges for Egypt Movement, condemned El-Zend for criticising the President so harshly. I urge El-Zend to realise that judges will not idly stand by and listen to irresponsible and unrepresentative remarks, asserted Shoraby at another press conference. Another judge, Hesham El-Labban, vowed to adopt a no-confidence vote against El-Zend following his anti-Morsy tirade.

Morsys foreign policy

Despite the political uncertainty and the chaotic institutional realignments that were taking place at home, Morsy has been showing extreme activism in the foreign policy arena. Leaving the unresolved internal problems behind, the President chose Saudi Arabia, the wealthy oil kingdom, which has traditionally hosted a large number of Egyptian expatriate workers, as his first overseas destination. With its economy in a shambles, Egypt is in dire need of hefty investments from Saudi Arabia, whose coffers have been bolstered significantly by the consistently high prices of oil. Cairo also needs Riyadh to extend its welcome to Egyptian expatriate workers whose remittances are very important for Egypts ailing economy.

Morsys well-publicised performance of Umrah, the Islamic ritual in Mecca, was also not without political meaning. By performing the Umrah, which highlighted his religiosity, the embattled President hoped to reinforce the psychological bonds with millions of devout supporters who have stood by him during the turmoil that post-Mubarak Egypt has been experiencing.

During the limited time he has had as President, Morsy has also flagged his countrys deep interest in Africa a move that connects well with a Nasserite tradition, for Africa was central to the alternative vision of a new world order conceived by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypts first President. Unsurprisingly, members of the Presidents delegation ensured in Ethiopia that Morsy was suitably photographed next to a giant portrait of Nasser, who had played a key role in African politics during the continents heady struggles for national liberation in the 1960s. Apart from the symbolism of continuity, Morsys visit was remarkable on another count he became the first President to visit Ethiopia since 1995, the year gunmen failed to assassinate Mubarak not far from the Addis Ababa airport.

Morsy is now all set to reinforce bonds with Palestinians, who have been increasingly divided between the secular Fatah and the Islamist Hamas, which has Muslim Brotherhood roots. The new Egyptian President has already gone public in articulating his intention to promote reconciliation between the Fatah and Hamas. At a news conference in Cairo with his Tunisian counterpart, Moncef Marzouki, Morsy said: We agree on supporting the Palestinian cause and Palestinian reconciliation. But aware that he would be accused of partisanship because of a deeply established relationship in the past with Hamas, Morsy, hoping to establish Egypt as a neutral role player, stressed that he stood at the same distance from all Palestinian factions.

Morsy also steered clear of any controversy that would have naturally occurred had he commented on easing the border restrictions between Gaza and Egypt. (The restrictions have been tightly in place since Israel decided to blockade Gaza when Hamas established control of the coastal strip in 2007.)

However, by refraining from comments on the restrictions, the Egyptian President may have only managed to buy some time, for a clearer enunciation on Palestine and Israel from Egypts post-Mubarak leaders is inevitable.

Just ahead of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas maiden visit to Cairo, Palestinian officials have made it clear that talks with Morsy and other leaders would not be focussed on any narrow agenda. The two Presidents will tackle the future of the peace process, Palestinian reconciliation and the urgent necessity of lifting the siege on the Gaza Strip, said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, ahead of Abbas visit.

Concerned about the Muslim Brotherhoods regional ambitions, the United States has mounted a diplomatic campaign to dissuade the Egyptians from pursuing a course that marks a significant departure from the past. The arrival in Cairo of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has demonstrated that the U.S. is now seriously and openly working on Egypts new leaders. An article in the Egyptian daily Al Ahram seemed to sum up well the context of Hillary Clintons visit. Its fallout may affect not Egypt alone but a large part of West Asia as well.

Citing American and Egyptian officials, the article said that one of the purposes of the visit was to receive a clear-cut commitment from the new President that Egypt under his watch would remain as committed as before to the Egypt-Israel peace deal signed by the two countries in 1979. During talks, the U.S. expected a commitment from Egypt that it would utilise its good ties that link the Muslim Brotherhood with the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip to curtail any plans that Hamas might have towards escalation with Israel, the daily said, quoting an American diplomatic source.

The U.S. also expected from Morsy a pledge that he would not deviate from Egypts traditional policy of limited engagement with Iran. Besides, Washington wanted assurances that the rights of women and Coptic Christians, and other minorities in Egypt would be respected by Egypts new leaders.

During her visit, Hillary Clinton called upon the SCAF to work towards ensuring the militarys return to a purely national security role. According to some analysts, her visit seemed to outline the broad contours of a deal where the U.S. would support the new government, provided Egypt under his watch did not significantly deviate from the current foreign policy towards Israel and Iran. Simultaneously, the Islamists have to guarantee protection for Egypts minorities, especially Coptic Christians, who have been targeted by a radical Islamist fringe in the past.

Despite Hillary Clintons exhortations, it is unlikely that the Muslim Brothers, under pressure for change within from their supporters, can entirely abide by the American wish list. While the peace treaty with Israel is likely to stay, it is equally possible that the Egyptians, on humanitarian grounds, would want Israel to lift the tight siege that it has imposed on the people of Gaza. Relations with Iran are also expected to improve as Morsy heads to Teheran in August-end to attend the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement which will be held there.

The post-Mubarak tumult, which has already acquired a larger regional footprint, can only be expected to intensify as Egypts new leaders, wanting to expand their democratic space, sharpen their assault on the military junta, which, in defence of its vast commercial empire and lust for power, appears in no mood to relent.

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