Egypt’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood appears set on a collision course with the country’s military and secular liberals, observers suggest, highlighting a potential strategic miscalculation behind the Obama administration’s controversial decision to waive Congressional rights criteria and release up to $1.5 billion in military assistance.
Egypt’s political terrain experienced a seismic shift over recent days as Brotherhood spokesmen blamed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for mishandling the transition, suggested that a civilian government would consider prosecuting military figures for human rights abuses, and threatened to subject the armed forces’ substantial economic holdings to greater scrutiny.
Meanwhile, a host of liberal and secular groups resigned from a constitutional panel, alleging that it was being packed with Islamists.
“The Brotherhood’s monopoly on setting the criteria for selecting the constitutional assembly leaves us skeptical of whatever promises they make,” leading human rights activist Hafez Abu Saeda wrote on his Twitter account.
The Islamist group is increasingly more confident and impatient as it scents power, a Western diplomat tells Reuters.
“That impatience is most visibly manifested in the Islamist domination of the Constitutional Assembly,” says the diplomat. “That confidence is manifested in the open challenge to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”
But after months of skillful maneuvering, the Islamists have no incentive to provoke the military – yet, says Diaa Rashwan, head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“The Brotherhood’s high tone of attack in their statement is a bit worrying, but the group realizes that clashing with the army won’t be in their favor.”
Economic factors outweighed democracy concerns in the Obama administration’s controversial decision to waive Congressional rights criteria and release up to $1.5 billion in aid for Egypt’s military, analysts suggest.
“It’s actually quite difficult to shut down that aid because it means jobs for Americans here,” said Brookings analyst Ken Pollack. “The U.S. economy is trying desperately to get in gear and get moving and there’s a lot of money” involved in the Egypt aid, he told Bloomberg:
The administration considered the potential loss of U.S. jobs in Ohio, Texas and elsewhere generated by Egyptian military contracts with companies such as General Dynamics Corp. (GD), which sells M1A1 tanks, and Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), which sells F-16 jets, according to State Department officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity. In addition, under the contracting terms, the U.S. government might have been liable for as much as $2 billion if the Egyptian aid money were withheld, according to one of the officials.
The move saves thousands of jobs and some $2 billion in contracting penalties for the U.S. government as a result of lost arms sales.
The decision came as Egypt’s ruling military junta appears to be losing ground to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood in the maneuvering over the country’s protracted transition, leading some observers to suggest that the administration has made a strategic miscalculation.
“They keep banking on the military as our partner in Egypt, and that does not comport with the reality in Egypt now,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“The military still has some influence, but civilian institutions such as the parliament and a new president to be elected in May … are going to become much more important. And I think they are making a real mistake here, just placing their bet with the military.”
Human rights and democracy advocates also criticized the release of the aid.
The decision “sends the signal that we’re placing our support for Egypt’s transition to democracy beneath our support for Egypt’s military, in the way we had done during the Mubarak era,” said Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party has hinted that the military-appointed government is willfully creating a toxic legacy of rampant crime and economic dislocation in order to discredit an Islamist-led civilian government.
“The (ruling) military council bears full responsibility for attempts to hinder the process of democratic transition and … exporting crises to future governments,” said a statement released over the weekend.
The military responded with “a thinly veiled threat” against the Islamists, in an apparent allusion to the mid-1950s, when an earlier tacit partnership ended with a ban on the Brotherhood after it challenged the military’s prerogatives.
“We ask everyone to learn from the lessons of history so we avoid the mistakes of a past we don’t wish to return to,” a SCAF statement said.
But some analysts believe that the military and the Brotherhood are posturing, testing the ground for a potential stand-off at a later date.
“It is highly unlikely that a real crisis will occur between the Brotherhood and [the army]. Both represent the two main forces in Egypt at the moment and each of them is fully aware of that,” said Bashir Abdel Fattah, analyst and editor of Democracy magazine. “The Brotherhood is prudent enough to realize that the military has … enough nationwide support to win any conflict of this kind, which can subsequently lead to the group losing its biggest achievement ever, the parliament.”
The Brotherhood further affirmed its growing leverage when the FJP joined with ultraconservative Salafist Islamists to constitute a two-thirds majority on the 100-member panel charged with drafting the country’s new constitution.
“There’s been a major shift in Egyptian politics,” according to Shadi Hamid, a regional expert at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is entering its lame-duck stage. At this point, no one can stop the Brotherhood.”
The group’s announcement of the constitutional panel’s make-up prompted several liberals and secular groups to announce a boycott of the assembly, accusing the Islamists – who occupy almost 65 per cent of seats – of packing the panel.
“This was a black day in Egypt’s history,” said Ziad Bahaa, a parliamentarian for the Social Democratic Party. “The composition of the panel?.?.?.?was dictated by the FJP and Nour without giving any consideration to [the need for] consensus,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“My concern is the extreme domination of Islamists,” said Mona Makram Ebeid, a former parliamentarian and one of the few Christians selected.
Newly-elected liberal MP and political scientist Amr Hamzawy, also cited the marginalization of women, young people and Christians in his decision to resign:
“I polled those who elected me and the majority of them said they preferred for me to stay on the constituent assembly,” Hamzawy wrote on his Twitter account. “I gave the matter a great deal of thought and studied the make-up of the assembly. My conscience told me to pull out.”
Liberals were already alarmed by the Islamist group’s announcement that it was considering contesting forthcoming presidential elections, violating an earlier commitment to abstain.
“We are going to boycott this committee, and we are going to withdraw and let them make an Islamic constitution. We are going to continue struggling for a secular Egypt in the streets,” said Mohammed Abou el Ghar, head of the Social Democratic Party, who was elected to the assembly but has resigned his post. “We agreed that this will be a balanced committee and it will represent all views of Egypt. But as you can see, there is no representation of secular Egypt.”
Fifteen liberal and secular groups today announced the formation of a “Constitution for All Egyptians Front” which aims to “defend Egyptians’ right to draft a national constitution granting them their basic rights to freedom, dignity and social equality.” The new coalition comprises the Free Egyptian, Democratic Front and Tagammu parties, as well as several civil society groups, including the National Commission for Change; the Front for Egyptian Innovation; the Youth Coalition Association; the Union of Independent Labor Syndicates; and the Union of Egyptian Farmers.
But some secular groups are reluctant to boycott the constitution-drafting process.
“From the start this has been a worrying process,” said Mostapha Kamel al-Sayed, who was elected to the panel for the leftwing Popular Democratic Alliance. “Already half the members of the panel are from parliament, which means that the social consensus which should be there is absent. But I believe we should stay in and express our views. If we find out that our participation has no effect then we can pull out.”
Some liberal and leftist activists have responded to the Islamists’ growing assertiveness by backing the presidential candidacy of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the group’s Guidance Bureau, who was expelled in July 2011 for breaching the group’s Leninist-style party discipline.
“If you are a liberal and with the revolution you don’t have another option at this point,” said Rabab al-Mahdi, Fotouh’s political adviser and a leftwing political science at the American University in Cairo. “If the election goes to a second round, he can make it.”
Often portrayed as a relatively moderate Islamist, Fotouh challenges the Brotherhood’s apparent monopoly on political virtue, while his candidacy may expose and enhance the group’s internal divisions, some liberal activists suggest.
“Fotouh is very dangerous for them — a matter of life and death,” says one secular supporter. “If he succeeds, it means the Brotherhood loses its monopoly on moderate Islam. It shows that there is a multiplicity in Islam big enough to include Marxists and liberals. It tells their moderates that you can leave the Brotherhood and it is not the end of life.”
But other secular activists are wary of devoting resources and political capital to an Islamist candidacy instead of developing secular and liberal alternatives. While relatively moderate, his politics are notably illiberal, they note, citing his opposition to lifting the travel ban on democracy activists threatened by the recent crackdown on civil society NGOs.
“Backing Aboul Fotouh is a strategic mistake by liberals and revolutionaries,” said Shady al-Ghazali Harb, a leader of a youth coalition which sparked the Tahrir Square revolt against Hosni Mubarak. “His is an Islamist’s project.”
The Islamists’ growing political weight makes the administration’s decision to waive the democracy criteria on military assistance to the military appear especially myopic, say analysts.
“(I)t is from that disadvantaged position that the United States will have to start the difficult process of building a new bilateral relationship with a changing Egypt, once the military (on which the United States continues to double down) leaves power and a new president and cabinet step in,” said the Atlantic Council’s Dunne.
“Will showing that Americans sacrifice our principles at the first sign of inconvenience stand U.S. in good stead with a new civilian Egyptian leadership, especially one with a heavy Islamist presence? Not likely.”
Dunne, a former Middle East specialist in the White House and Department of State, is a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. POMED is a NED grantee.