“In all but ruling out an early agreement on an IMF loan, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has dramatically raised the stakes in its struggle with the army-led administration for control of a country still reeling from a year of political turmoil,” reports suggest.
The group’s Islamist ideology and suspect commitment to democracy have attracted attention and analysis. But the short-term risk of Brotherhood rule “isn’t its religious beliefs,” according to David F. Gordon a former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State and Hani Sabra, a Middle East Analyst at Eurasia Group. “Rather, it’s the group’s political incompetence.”
At the most sensitive juncture in Egypt’s transition since Hosni Mubarak’s removal, the Brotherhood, has demonstrated “an alarming political tone-deafness” over the drafting of a new constitution and the presidential campaign, they contend:
The Brotherhood-led, Islamist-dominated parliament could easily have crafted an assembly with only 30 or so Islamists, ceding the remaining seats to Coptic Christians, women, liberals, civil society activists and legal experts, and still have gotten the constitution it wanted. And by including a broader array of forces in shaping Egypt’s post-revolutionary political bedrock, the Brotherhood would have garnered increased trust and credibility from its opponents.
Instead, the Brotherhood clumsily overplayed its hand. In a move guided as much by historical insecurity as newfound power, the group’s leadership created a constituent assembly list dominated by Islamists, alienating Egypt’s non-Islamist political class – the Brotherhood’s natural ally against SCAF. …..Rather than moderating its approach, however, the Brothers doubled down. Exactly a week after the constituent assembly debacle, the Brotherhood announced it was reneging on its promise not to field a presidential candidate. … The backtracking announcement immediately raised hackles within military circles and unsettled Egypt’s already wary non-Islamist groups.
The Brotherhood’s moves will confirm an image of the group as “hungry for power,” said Khalil Al-Anani, an expert on Islamist politics and Middle East affairs at the UK’s Durham University.
“This shows that the group is looking out for interests that go beyond a specific presidential candidate,” Al-Anani told Daily News Egypt.
“The image of the Brotherhood is changing right now, and I think people will start to rethink about the Brotherhood as an honest movement,” he said. “They didn’t follow through on their promise.”
“Even without a loan before the presidential election in May and June, whoever comes to power will be forced, sooner or later, to impose hugely unpopular taxes and cuts in government spending to reduce budget and balance of payments deficits inflated by a year of political and economic turmoil,” one analysis suggests:
But any delay in securing a loan brings closer the prospect of a fully-fledged fiscal crisis that would mean a jump in consumer prices and interest rates, a sharp devaluation and huge pressure on banks.
It’s a game of brinkmanship in which the Brotherhood might be first to yield to avoid inheriting an economy in tatters, fearing it will end up taking the blame for painful measures that the current government has repeatedly delayed.
The Brotherhood’s decision is likely to deter potential investors already concerned about the country’s political impasse, observers suggest.
“They’re not concerned with the Freedom and Justice Party per se, but they’re concerned that the Brotherhood has not yet assumed control of the economy, which continues to deteriorate,” said Magda Kandil, the director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies.
“Thus far, it stays at the level of good statements and slogans, but there is still a lot of bickering behind the scenes,” she added. “This is what makes investors worried. They want a resolution of the power clash.”
The Brotherhood’s decision is further evidence that Egypt’s presidential election “is devolving into a comedy of errors, but with potentially tragic consequences,” according to Hani Sabra and John Watling, analysts with Eurasia Group’s Middle East and North Africa team.
“Egypt’s economy is suffering and none of the candidates has outlined a real rescue plan or a vision for the future,” they note. “Economic collapse would change the calculus completely, given the likelihood for widespread societal discontent.”
The Brotherhood, which was intermittently proscribed for decades before last year’s revolution, is “still stuck in the victimhood mentality,” said Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements.
“Their perception is that, ‘It’s a conspiracy and they’re out to get us’,” he says, suggesting that its standoff with the SCAF could provoke military intervention. “The rifts are real and you cannot deny the mistrust and the ideological animosity, but I think we have to move beyond this if we want this democratic transition to succeed,” he says.
An Egyptian court’s ruling to suspend the constitution drafting panel will disappoint the Brotherhood, which hoped to exploit its parliamentary majority, writes Walter Russell Mead. Yet the Islamists may yet emerge with even more power over the constitution, he argues:
Amid the confusion a few things are clear:
- Egypt’s liberals are weak, and have been losing power ever since the protests in Tahrir Square. Their poor showing in the parliamentary election and their lack of representation on the constitutional committee have further diminished their impact. Even if the constitution is not drafted until after the election, the liberals are likely to be increasingly marginalized as the new government takes shape.
- Islamists are dominating the mass electorate. Their desire for parliamentary rule makes sense. The more democratic Egypt becomes, the more likely the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties are to claim power.
- Meanwhile, the army and the remnant of the ancien régime (not always the same thing) still wield a lot of power behind the scenes. While the liberals and Islamists squabble over the future of the country, the military retains control over the formation of new governments and could easily exert influence in the upcoming elections. Many liberals are already beginning to see the candidacy of former vice president and security officer Omar Suleiman as a troubling sign that the old regime isn’t letting go.
While these three groups jockey for power, life gets worse for most Egyptians. The economy is going nowhere, and an increasingly unstable political situation does nothing to reassure a beleaguered public that things will improve.
The main danger of growing Brotherhood-SCAF tensions is not prolonged military rule, but “an Egypt in which the only power centers are the Brotherhood and/or SCAF, with all other groups alienated or disempowered. This is a negative outcome for both U.S. foreign policy and Egyptian stability – but it looks increasingly probable,” say Gordon and Sabra.
Consequently, the U.S. faces two “equally unappealing and dangerous” alternatives:
Some Egyptians on the fence would now have no problem if the military staged a coup – the logic being that a military dictatorship you know is safer than an unpredictable Islamist dictatorship you don’t. With the U.S. already struggling to regain stature in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, supporting a new authoritarian regime in Egypt would do incalculable damage.
Yet a government over which the Brotherhood effectively has a monopoly and that may be emboldened to pursue Islamist goals and reconfigure regional geopolitics, is equally unpalatable. The U.S. would be forced to work with a regime to which it is ideologically opposed, while marginalizing the very political forces in Egypt (liberals, youth, women, Islamist youth and civil society activists) whose uprising last year ultimately led the U.S. to cease its support for longtime ally Hosni Mubarak.
“In either outcome, the U.S. finds itself stuck,” they conclude. “And that’s not good – not for the U.S., not for the Muslim Brotherhood and, most of all, not for the Egyptian people.”