As Army and Brotherhood Tussle, Egyptians Look to the US as Guarantor
Call it a coup d’etat. Call it a legal maneuver mixed with a political power grab. But however you see it, the recent dissolution of Egypt’s parliament is an event with an outwardly growing blast radius.
At the center of the blast, the question remains as to whether Egypt has become a Pakistan-like state where the civilian government is the handmaiden of the military. All the while, the United States remains conspicuously silent – notwithstanding the military’s glaringly anti-democratic moves.
Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) dissolved parliament only a few days ahead of the country’s runoff presidential election. Evidently, the SCAF’s dissolution of parliament was not illegal; parliament had been unilaterally dissolved before – in 1984 and 1987. But the current situation is unique because the military’s takeover of the legislature occurred as the presidential seat was still being contested.
Currently, polls show the Muslim Brotherhood‘s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, winning the majority of the votes. But he is still in a near dead-heat against the military-backed candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s hold on the situation may be slipping. Even if Morsi becomes the victor, expect more stasis and fracturing of the country. In a situation in which the Muslim Brotherhood holds power over the executive office and the military controls the legislature and judiciary, each side will duke it out in a relentless struggle for power.
What will conceivably be lost in that power struggle is much-needed attention to the country’s problems – public health, relations with foreign governments, and, most importantly, the economy.
A Shafiq victory, though, would only realize the fears many Egyptians have held – that military control over all areas of the government means a revolution wasted and a return to the ancien regime’s rule. By previously disqualifying popular choices of presidential candidates, taking control of the government after Hosni Mubarak‘s forced abdication, and continuing Mubarak-era abuses, such as indefinite imprisonment and torture of critics, the military – many Egyptians suspect – has no intention of giving up its power.
Additionally, control over all branches of government would allow the military to correct mistakes it had recently made in forming a de facto partnership with its main political rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. Many experts believe the military fundamentally underestimated the Brotherhood when the latter acquired control over parliament and attempted to change laws that govern the military-backed judiciary. The recent dissolution of parliament was simply a move to stop dead in its tracks the rising influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On the outer edges of the blast zone is what recent events in Egypt mean for Israel and the United States. Notably, Israel has remained quiet on the dissolution of parliament. But it is much more invested in a Shafiq victory. Hosni Mubarak, for all his faults, had remained a consistent ally to Israel. And Shafiq conceivably would maintain that relationship. Unlike other presidential candidates and against popular Egyptian opinion, he has stated no intention of altering the Camp David Accords and has intimated a visit to Israel “if it served Egypt’s interest”.
But the Israelis are nervous and the Knesset has called up six reserve battalions and authorized an additional 16 to its border. The United States, too, regarded Hosni Mubarak as a reliable partner and is predisposed to a Shafiq presidency to preserve its own interests in the Gulf region – access to the Suez Canal and over-fly permission.
Moreover, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in recent elections exposes America’s priorities. Despite all talk hitherto of promoting democracy in Egypt, when faced with a choice between a democratically elected Islamist government and an authoritarian military junta, the United States appears to prefer the latter.
The United States provides $1.3bn in aid to Egypt, which gives it significant influence over the military. Yet US appetite for democratic reform in Egypt is waning. Just 16 months ago, the US seemed to have decided that siding with dictators is a losing endeavor. But now, the Egyptian military takes American taxpayer dollars without having to comply with human rights norms – as evinced by Hillary Clinton’s recent waiver of such requirements. The United States should not sacrifice its values for realpolitik: whoever is in power and receives US foreign aid should be required to adhere to international human rights norms and democratic principles.
But for all the ominous talk of the current Egyptian power struggle’s possible outcome, there may be a silver lining to the situation. After a year of rule, the military has discovered that it is, in fact, bad at the business of governing. It feels fatigued by confronting a political force (the Muslim Brotherhood) that was much more ambitious than expected. The solution the military now seeks is to hand over power to a government that is willing to negotiate on its – that is, the military’s – agenda of political and economic interests.
The Muslim Brotherhood has also experienced the challenges of governing, realizing that it does not have the overwhelming political popularity it had counted on. Seeking control over parliament proved to be an overreach on its part, which resulted in the body being dissolved by the contending force of the generals. The Muslim Brotherhood’s enforced humility is visible in the more conciliatory tone it has recently adopted toward other political parties.
Both sides may be obliged to recognize what they should have known all along – governing a country is most effective when responsibility is shared, not seized.
Sahar F Aziz is an associate professor at Texas Wesleyan University school of law and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. She is the author of Caught in a Preventive Dragnet 10 Years Later: Selective Counterterrorism in a Post-9/11 America (2011). She previously served as a senior policy adviser at the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Homeland Security.
Cedric Moon is a law clerk for the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. Formerly, Cedric was a journalist at Hofstra University school of law.
This article was published by The Guardian on June 22, 2012. Read it here.