Egypt’s convoluted transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratic system continues to suffer from serious tremors. In recent weeks, activists failed in an attempt to revive the revolution and challenge military rule, though the military did offer concessions and installed a new interim government.

Egypt’s convoluted transition from authoritarian rule to a more democratic system continues to suffer from serious tremors. In recent weeks, activists failed in an attempt to revive the revolution and challenge military rule, though the military did offer concessions and installed a new interim government. While the country’s most free parliamentary elections in decades are under way – with Islamist parties so far winning easily – the future course of Egypt’s revolution remains highly uncertain.

The new interim government has more powers than its predecessor, but its prerogatives remain subservient to those of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has run the country since the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in February. The powers of the new parliament to legislate and to draft a new constitution will also be restricted. The new constellation of political forces – the army, political parties and activists – requires deal-making to ensure a stable future. But in such an unsettled environment, any faction can resort to brinksmanship.

The SCAF’s bid for power 

Entrusted with managing the transition, the military leadership has demonstrated a mixture of incoherence, incompetence, overreach and insecurity that has alienated many Egyptians who previously supported its role in ousting Mubarak. Having rejected power-sharing with civilians so that it could speed up and shape the changeover, the SCAF found itself facing the distrust and ire of activists who suspected that its real intention was to preserve important aspects of the Mubarak regime.

These fears grew as the SCAF ruled by decree; offered unclear timetables for elections and return to civilian rule; overruled the government of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf on important matters; referred 12,000 civilians to military courts, including the prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah; used deadly force, most notably against Coptic demonstrators in Maspero; and blamed foreign conspirators for locally rooted protest movements.

With popular discontent building against it, the SCAF made a big mistake in November when Sharaf’s government introduced on its behalf a proposal for supra-constitutional principles that would have shielded it from the kind of public scrutiny and parliamentary oversight needed in any democratic system. The El-Selmi document (named after the deputy prime minister who presented the draft), which only needed SCAF approval to enter into effect, would have allowed the army to veto any military-related legislation. It would have infringed on the authority of the new parliament by authorising the SCAF to form a panel of 100 members, only 20 of whom would be parliamentarians, to write the constitution. It would have given the SCAF veto power over the draft constitution drawn up by the panel. And it would have enshrined the army as the protector of ‘constitutional legitimacy’, a broad and ambiguous status that could have allowed the military to intervene in policymaking.

The proposal was met with outrage across the political spectrum. Mohammed ElBaradei, a leading liberal opposition figure, said: ‘There is a difference between a civilian democratic state that guarantees man’s basic rights and military guardianship.’ A leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party was even harsher: ‘This route goes against the will of the people, and will lead to another revolution. We call on the people of Egypt to reject the document to protect their rights.’

Tahrir’s last gasp?

Youth activists, whose protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities had spearheaded the revolution, had for months warned: ‘Back to the barracks or back to Tahrir.’ The military council’s proposal validated their concerns and reinvigorated them. This set the stage for a violent showdown in Tahrir Square and across the country in which dozens of demonstrators were killed over several days. In contrast with the January-February uprising, when violence was blamed on Mubarak and the Interior Ministry but not on the military, protesters this time accused the army and Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi by name.

This escalation created a dilemma for political parties campaigning for parliament. Tahrir activists claimed that loyalty to the revolutionary ideals required that they push for civilian rule and boycott the elections. No one felt more pressure than the Muslim Brotherhood, whose allegiance to revolutionary change was often doubted. Indeed, its focus on the elections, which it expected to formalise its political ascendancy, intersected with the military’s insistence on holding them on time. To prove their revolutionary credentials, the Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties had to walk a thin line. Helped by pressure from Tahrir revolutionaries, they obtained a promise from the military council that a presidential election would be held by June 2012. In addition, Sharaf’s government was replaced in early December by one headed by Kamal al-Ganzouri, who had been prime minister in the 1990s.

Ultimately, the Tahrir activists failed to create enough momentum and popular mobilisation to repeat their February success. Established political parties preferred to engage in electoral politics, and the majority of the population proved either apathetic or partial to the military. The net result of the confrontation has been a weakening of the revolutionaries, whose numbers are dwindling, and also of the military, whose prestige and authority have been eroded.

Making sense of the electoral results

The first round of the complicated electoral process (with two more rounds to be staged in 18 more governorates under a hybrid, complex electoral law) delivered a massive victory for the Islamist parties. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won over 36% of the vote. The FJP victory, following similar successes by Brotherhood affiliates in Tunisia and Morocco, can be explained by its impressive organisation, coherent and nationwide messaging, focus on jobs and social justice, identity politics and the formation of a coalition, called the Democratic Alliance, with secular groups. Sensing winds blowing its way, the FJP has fielded more candidates than it pledged at the outset of the transition.

The real surprise, however, came from the hardline Salafist Nour party, which won 24% of the vote. Long absent from formal politics but focused on preaching their puritanical interpretation of Islam, the Salafis at first seemed fragmented. But this weakness was overcome by considerable resources, good organisation and relentless identity-based campaigning. Pious but so far politically inactive Egyptians came out in support of the Salafis. Many conservative Egyptians traditionally attracted to the Brotherhood probably shifted their votes to the Salafis despite significant political and doctrinal differences between the two groups. Islamist parties’ share in parliament will likely grow as other, more conservative governorates go to the polls in coming weeks.

The main liberal coalition, known as the Egyptian Bloc, came third with only 13% in the first round. Together with smaller groups, secular parties gained a meagre fifth of the vote. Their standing was hurt by divisions among factions, weak organisation, paltry resources, uncharismatic leadership and inconsistent messaging, as well as ambiguous relations with the Tahrir revolutionaries. In an interview, ElBaradei acknowledged the rout, saying liberals had been ‘decimated’. ‘The youth feel let down,’ he said. ‘They don’t feel that any of the revolution’s goals have been achieved.’

The remnants of the former ruling National Democratic Party garnered only a tiny fraction of the vote.

What can the Islamists do with their victory?

The new democratic legitimacy of the Islamist parties, and especially the FJP given the size of its vote, makes them crucial interlocutors and challengers of the military council. Their relationship with the SCAF promises to be tense. Traditional distrust between Islamists and the military, compounded by their competing legitimacy, will come to the fore when a new government is formed in January and the new parliament moves to draft a constitution before Egypt elects a president.

The military council has already begun to assert its role. Major-General Mokhtar el-Mulla, a member of the SCAF, said in an interview: ‘In the future, parliament may have the ability to do whatever it likes. However at the moment, given the unstable situation, parliament is not representing all the Egyptian people.’ The council has formed an advisory council of technocrats and leading politicians that may have a role in writing the constitution — though the army later appeared to backtrack by saying that only parliament will choose members of the assembly that will write the constitution.

This manoeuvring has already alienated the Brotherhood. Mahmoud Hussein, its secretary-general, pronounced the supra-constitutional principles ‘dead’. FJP officials have also declared their preference for a semi-presidential system that would give parliament the right to appoint and hold accountable the prime minister and his cabinet. The military continues to favour a presidential system. The Brotherhood has declined to join the advisory council, which is seen as an attempt to co-opt non-Islamist figures.

Much will depend on how fragmented the new parliament ultimately is: the final number of seats won by each party will only be known once all rounds of voting are completed in January. This will determine the extent to which the military is able to play factions against each other as it seeks to secure its position, privileges and business interests in the drafting of the constitution. The powers of the new assembly remain restricted. The SCAF will continue to rule by decree; until the military cedes its prerogative to appoint the prime minister and his cabinet, parliament will have limited authority over the executive branch.

The other major challenge for the Muslim Brotherhood is how to interact with the emerging Salafi faction. Even if together the FJP and the Salafist Nour party command a majority in parliament, it is unlikely that the former would enter a coalition with the illiberal Salafis. If it did so, it would undermine its own years of effort to convince audiences at home and abroad that the Brotherhood has become more moderate and has embraced democratic rules. Such a coalition would polarise Egyptian politics. It could also give the military a pretext to maintain its political control by posing as the guardian of secularism and Egypt’s pro-Western foreign-policy orientation.

The Brotherhood wants to proceed cautiously in injecting Islamist values into society, while the Salafis favour swifter, more ruthless imposition of Islamist tenets. That tension could sharpen during the constitutional drafting process. The Salafis and the Brotherhood differ on fundamental issues such as how to refer to Islam, citizenship (a matter of utmost importance for the large Coptic Christian minority), cultural affairs, individual and gender rights and foreign affairs. They also disagree on economic issues, such as tourism, which provides one in eight jobs.

At the same time, a confrontational attitude by the FJP toward the Salafis could drive away conservative Brotherhood sympathisers, many of whom are already displeased with its willingness to engage in political compromises. The relative success of Al-Wasat, a party formed by liberal Islamists who defected from the Brotherhood and which garnered 4% of the first-round vote, suggests the FJP is also vulnerable on its left flank.

The Brotherhood must balance intra-Islamist politics with the future responsibility of managing state affairs and a failing economy at a most difficult period. Its competence would be tested whether it was governing alone or with other Islamists.

Aware of these challenges, senior Brotherhood officials have already announced that the FJP would seek to form a broad national coalition, suggesting that an alliance with secular factions is more likely. The supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, struck a moderate tone: ‘There is nothing in Islam called a religious state because Islam has a civilian nature,’ he said. ‘Our project is not the Islamisation of Egypt because Egypt already is a Muslim country.’ An alliance with secular groups would also echo Tunisia’s experiment with coalition politics between the Islamist An-Nahda and secular factions.

Secular parties are divided about this prospect. Some fear that the Brotherhood is seeking only to deflect scrutiny and criticism by reaching out to them, but would not seriously consult with its partners on important political matters. Others argue that a coalition would be a moderating influence on the Brotherhood during the crucial constitution-drafting process and would help return Egypt to civilian rule. Should secular groups remain outside a coalition, however, the military could try to co-opt them to retain its role as guarantor of the ‘civil state’.

Political manoeuvring will intensify in coming weeks as the FJP seeks political alliances to counter the SCAF’s attempt to dominate the transition. Despite their electoral defeat, Egypt’s secular factions could yet play a central role.

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