“Egypt’s choice should not be between democracy without liberalism (what the Islamists are accused of seeking) or liberalism without democracy (what the liberals are likely to get),” writes the FT’s Roula Khalaf:
That is the fake choice that kept Hosni Mubarak in power for three decades, his regime sustained by a political and business elite, and an outside world that feared the Islamists. And it will remain as long as all sides in Egypt’s political divide fail to find a minimum of national consensus.
The rearguard action by Egypt’s old guard is likely to have profound regional implications, some analysts believe.
“From Libya to the Gulf, the rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has buoyed Islamists around the region,” reports suggest, “but the military’s bid to curb their power has also exposed the fragility of the gains Islamists have made since the Arab Spring.”
Adopting a sectarian and opportunistic approach to potential anti-authoritarian allies, the Brotherhood failed to learn lessons from neighboring Tunisia.
“I always tell Arabs: ‘Look at Tunisia,’ ” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, who routinely meets with politicians of countries including Libya, Yemen and Syria. “There, we are genuinely seeing a pluralistic model emerging.”
Tunisia….never had the friction between military and civil society that Egyptians have had to face. But Tunisia’s political parties have also sidestepped mistakes that Egypt’s political actors have made. Tunisia boasts a coalition government that pairs the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, winner of the region’s first post-Arab Spring election, with a coalition of secular groups. The head of state is a former human-rights activist…. Ennahda’s leaders rejected the winner-take-all mentality that some analysts say set Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood on a collision course last week with the army and supporters of the old regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
The Tunisian party gained more respect this spring when the co-founder of the movement, religious scholar Rachid Ghannouchi, refused calls by extremists to make Shariah, or religious law, the basis of the new constitution. The national interest relies on consensus, “not narrow partisanship,” he said in a speech last month. So far, Tunisia’s political reforms haven’t been met by the same backlash among traditional authoritarian Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf that has greeted Egypt’s democratic experiment.
“Economics is what can threaten the entire democratic reform model for the region,” says Sharqieh,. “Protesters were motivated in part by economic frustration. They want to see the fruits of change and democracy.”
Egyptian democrats were naïve to expect the head of the SCAF, 76-year-old Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years, to lead a democratic transition, say observers.
“People expected that after the downfall of Mubarak that he might be changed and he might be serious about leading the country to change,” said Khalil al-Anani, an Egyptian analyst at Britain’s Durham University.
Instead, Egyptians discovered Tantawi had “the same mentality as Mubarak, who would like to keep things as it is”.
That view had been echoed, back in 2008, well before the Arab Spring in a leaked diplomatic cable from the U.S. ambassador to Cairo. Francis Ricciardone described Tantawi as “charming and courtly” but “aged and change-resistant”.
The U.S. envoy was in a good position to know, as the United States gives Egypt’s military $1.3 billion in aid each year.
“He and Mubarak are focused on regime stability and maintaining the status quo through the end of their time,” Ricciardone wrote. “They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently.”
“The problem is a gap between two generations: one thinking about a new Egypt and another that leans toward the continuation within the old regime,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an expert at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“He is the son of the military institution and is interested in the military keeping its status and the shape of the military relationship within the new political system.”
The weekend’s constitutional decree gives the military considerable authority and de facto legal immunity, observers suggest.
“This is the most dangerous phase in the modern history of Egypt,” said Khaled Fahmy, a historian at the American University in Cairo. “These [constitution amendments] are the continuation of a series of moves, taken by the SCAF on its way to a military coup, using both the law and judicial bodies,” (AUC) told Ahram Online.
“This is an excessive use of power and an unprecedented action in the course of Egypt’s modern history,” Fahmy told Ahram Online.
But other analysts consider talk of a military coup to be far-fetched, recalling reports that the military’s assumption of power in February 2011 was itself a “quiet military coup”.
Furthermore, the military’s constitutional decree does not indicate that the generals “want to stay in government…..to continue administering Egypt on a day-to-day basis,” according to Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“What they would like to do is return to the position that they were in under Mubarak where they could play an influential role from behind the scenes–that they would be the ultimate force of authority and power in this system; and that their economic interests would be taken care of,” he argues.
Recent events in Egypt have also highlighted the pitfalls of comfortable analogies and generalized predictions.
“After the Arab Spring, many people spoke of the ‘Turkish model,’ by which was meant a democratic Islamist government,” notes one observer. “But now a very different Turkish model is being discussed — the one from the past where a military holds on to power, unwilling to give it up for decades.”
Hussein Ibish, the senior research fellow for the American Task Force on Palestine, named this week to Foreign Policy magazine’s Twitterati 100, has acknowledged his own erroneous predictions about the trajectory of Egypt’s transition and the wider Arab awakening.
“Resist trying to impose any grand narratives. Take every apparently emerging pattern as contingent and unstable. Be prepared for Arab states and publics alike to pleasantly surprise or disappoint without warning,” he wrote.
“Avoid predictions whenever possible. And acknowledge that we frequently don’t really ‘know’ what we think we ‘know,’ for political realities are always at least a dozen steps ahead of every analyst.”
While Egypt’s democrats have been denied consistent assistance by the crackdown on pro-democracy NGOs, the Muslim Brotherhood is one of many regional Islamist groups to benefit from substantial and largely covert funding from the Gulf states. Qatar has been an especially generous and largely opaque funder of Islamist groups, but intra-Gulf tensions are raising questions about such cross-border assistance.
“The UAE has serious problem with the Qataris trying to support a regional role for the Brotherhood,” said Ayham Kamel, London-based analyst at Eurasia Group. “Abu Dhabi and Dubai see the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. Qatari support for them is likely to create tensions within the GCC and even on a bilateral level.”
While the UAE government is likely to accept whatever leader emerges victorious in Egypt’s run-off, the growing clout of the Brotherhood and its potential emulators at home could yet strain ties within the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
“The UAE is clearly worried about local Islamists… It has a problem with Islah and its own Islamists,” said Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdullah. Egypt’s presidential elections were “a blow to would-be pro-democracy revolutionaries,” according to Andrea Teti and Gennaro Gervasio.
“In the attempt to prevent control being passed to either the revolutionaries or the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces have used a range of well-known techniques used by the regime under Mubarak,” they observe:
First, divide the opposition. This was fairly easy, partly because of the lack of cohesion amongst ‘revolutionary forces’, but mostly because the leadership of the country’s largest and best-organized political movement – the Muslim Brotherhood – notoriously favours systematically seeking compromiseand coexistence with the regime.
Second, play the fear card. This the military junta has done from the very beginning of the post-Mubarak period, invoking the spectres of economic instability and insecurity, blaming them on the revolutionaries in the hope of reaping the support of those who will eventually call for order over ‘chaos’. ….. The most infamous manifestation of this climate was state television’s claim during the so-called ‘Maspero Incident’ that unarmed civilians had attacked the army’s armored personnel carriers, inviting ‘all honorable citizens’ to take to the streets to defend the army.
Thirdly, keep the opposition guessing, keep enough people hoping – through hints of reform – and most importantly keep institutional options open.
But the long-term viability of such tactics is questionable as “the junta’s power …is more brittle than it may appear,” they contend:
Firstly, for structural reasons: its leadership is ageing, the gap between lower, mid and higher ranks has sparked sporadic dissent, and unlike the Brotherhood’s, the military’s economic power relies in no small part on exploiting the labor of its own conscripts. Secondly, because none of the measures it has taken so far address the increasing economic tensions which lead to a strong labor mobilization before, during and after the Uprising. These tensions are the direct result of policies from which both the military and the Brotherhood benefit. Thirdly, because the junta’s inability thus far to engineer a smooth transition in which it would protect its interests while remaining in the background has meant it has ended up attempting to occupy virtually every seat of public power. ….
Finally, so long as the Brotherhood is kept away from power, it will be able to build on its legitimacy as an opponent of official corruption and authoritarianism, as it has for the past several decades. It will also gain legitimacy from its charitable work – from schools to hospitals– which will virtually guarantee that most people will be willing to give it its ‘turn’ in office.
“The presidential elections have presented the military with the dilemma underlying its position: it can persevere on its current ‘maximalist’ path of saturating all levers of state power, including by manipulating presidential elections,” Teti and Gervasio contend, “but if it does so it will not resolve the structural tensions which eventually crippled the regime under Mubarak and lead to the January 2011 Uprising.”