Since December, Egypt has had as its president a military council, and as its legislature the Muslim Brotherhood.
It is possible this morning that Egypt now has as its president the Muslim Brotherhood and as its legislature a military council.
Thus, not everything has changed. Although it is true that the judiciary, backed by the officer corps, dissolved the elected parliament last Thursday, it should be remembered that Egypt was a strongly presidential state, in which parliament could not so much as elect a prime minister or approve a cabinet. The transitional prime ministers were appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and they in turn appointed the cabinet members. Egypt therefore did not really have a parliament in the Westminster sense, but rather a weak legislature subordinate to the presidency, which was collectively held by SCAF, i.e. the officer corps.
That Egypt is a presidential system is what makes this weekend’s election of a president in the first free and fair presidential polls Egypt has ever known, so important. The winner will appoint a prime minister and a new cabinet, though under the circumstances will probably have to clear them with the officers. If the Brotherhood has won, it will be impossible and unseemly to deny them cabinet posts. But under the transitional governments, they lacked that basic prerogative. Likewise, the president appoints provincial governors (who really should be elected, but are not, in Egypt). The president makes judicial appointments, raising the prospect of Muslim Brotherhood judges.
If it is true that the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Muhammad Mursi, really has won the election, SCAF will likely craft a constitution reducing the president’s powers. But this step can in the nature of the case only be provisional. Nor would it in and of itself necessarily be such a bad thing for the president’s powers to be reduced somewhat. (Some elected provincial governors and mayors and judges independent of the president and his party would serve Egypt well).
Ironically, in Pakistan since 2008, the president’s powers (originally based on martial law amendments to the constitution made at will by a series of military dictators after their coups) have been much reduced as a result of popular pressure, the insistence of opposition parties, and the country’s feisty courts. Pakistan may be the sort of system toward which Egypt’s SCAF is groping, where the officer corps controls aspects of foreign policy (e.g. Afghanistan) and has huge economic holdings that the civilian government cannot easily challenge. But the continued power of the military in Pakistan derives in part from the war the country is fighting against elements of the Taliban in the tribal belt, and from the weakness and corruption of the parliamentary parties. And, even in Pakistan, it should be remembered, a military dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) was successfully removed in 2008 under threat of impeachment by the elected parliament, and the prerogatives of the officer corps have been whittled down in subsequent years. In Pakistan, big street protests and marches gave support to parties’ demands, a dynamic that we’ve seen in Egypt in the past year and a half.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has declared that it won’t hold new parliamentary elections until after a new constitution is written; that it will appoint the constituent assembly to write it; and that it will function as Egypt’s parliament until a new one can be elected.
What the Egyptian officer corps seems not to know is that the legitimacy and authority deriving from the ballot box will over time trump the military, no matter how positive people’s feeling are toward the officers. The only prerequisite is that the elections be viewed as free and fair by the electorate, and the elected party be seen as not corrupt.
We have seen this process in Turkey, where the military made a soft coup against the religious party in 1997. Nevertheless, five years later Turkey had a party supported by religious Muslims, the Justice and Development Party, in power. And over the period since 2002, the AK Party has won impressive electoral victories, ultimately making it difficult for the military to maintain its stranglehold on power.
In acquiescing in a popularly elected president, SCAF is from its point of view creating a Frankenstein’s monster. Nobody elected the officer corps, and we don’t even know how really popular they are. Putting that position up against an elected president will over time be harder and harder.
Even if the military succeeds in shaping Egypt’s next constitution, as it is attempting to do, it cannot guarantee that that constitution will stand for a decade. A parliament elected in 2017 could well overturn aspects of it. And by then the elected organs of the state may have more legitimacy than the officers.
A period of cohabitation of SCAF with the Muslim Brotherhood, if that is what happens, could blunt the worst aspects of each. The Brotherhood has the nationwide organization and ability to stage street rallies that will make it difficult for SCAF to exercise dictatorial power. SCAF has enough power to prevent the Brotherhood from becoming a one-party state or from imposing a rigid system of Islamic law on the country.
In the meantime, if Mursi has won, he is unlikely to provoke the kind of ongoing instability that Ahmad Shafiq would have. As Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Shafiq would be a lightning rod attracting protests from the New Left youth and the labor movement. He had promised to crush such protests.
Egypt’s transition after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak has been extremely troubled and democracy is a long way off. But the theory under which SCAF seems to be operating is simply incorrect, and it is far too soon to declare the transition to democracy forestalled. SCAF is taking desperate measures in hopes of shaping Egypt’s post-Mubarak era in the long term. It cannot. In a country with regular, fair elections, a military junta will inevitably gradually be weakened. Only if some authoritarian practices are maintained, as in Algeria or Pakistan or pre-2002 Turkey, can a military junta cohabit with an elected government over time. It seems unlikely to me that a mobilized Egyptian public such as now exists will put up with any such return to authoritarianism.