10 July 2012

Egypt: Tantawi vs Mursi

As I mentioned a few days ago, just before presidential runoff elections, the Egyptian army gave itself new powers and dissolved the parliament on the basis of a recent decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) which found certain aspects of legislative elections unconstitutional.

Yesterday, the newly elected President ordered the parliament to be reopened. His argument was that the SCC simply found aspects of legislative elections problematic and cancelled those elections. The dissolution of the parliament was the army's decision not the SCC's. But since new elections are 60 days ahead, the country needed this parliament as an interim legislative body.

Not unexpectedly, the Court immediately stated that its decision was binding and the dissolution should stand. And the army said that the decision to dissolve the parliament should be respected. This was reported as a "warning" throughout the Western media.

My take is that this is much ado about nothing.

I seriously doubt that the army will intervene in any significant fashion. After all, in the world according to Contrarian Progressive, the two sides are no longer mortal enemies: it was the army that allowed the ouster of Mubarak and opened the way to an Islamist transition. They knew full well that the Brotherhood was going to be the dominant political force and yet they let Mubarak go. Since then, they implemented some measures to ensure that (a) their immense wealth and power will go unchallenged and (b) they had veto power over key issues in case things got out of hand.

My contrarian views notwithstanding, there were very early reports suggesting that the army and the Brotherhood were collaborating behind the scenes while the world was focused on Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood knew that they were being allowed to become a major political actor for a specific scenario and as long as it brought them to power they were fine with it. They also knew that, within that framework they were not going to be able to do certain things like establishing a radical Islamist regime or tearing up the Camp David accords. And since the legislative elections, they have been repeating these points like the mantra of a yogi entering a state of trance.

Even with this pseudo drama unfolding Mursi and Tantawi were making joint public appearances:
Despite the apparent tensions, the president and Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who heads Scaf, appeared together at a military cadet graduation ceremony on Monday.
This is not to suggest there is no tension and a certain rivalry between these two groups. Of course there is. In fact, that tension makes the whole setup work much more effectively. 

Domestically, it reassures Copts, liberals and secular groups that the army is not going to let the Brotherhood turn Egypt into a Salafist dreamland. That, in turn, gives the army a new mission and a new legitimacy. It is something it can use to justify its role in the system and by extension its power and wealth. 

Conversely, the same tension gives hope to Islamists that one day they will be able to enact their agenda without the army's overbearing presence. In turn, their fundamental opposition to the army makes them appear like the only organized political force that can successfully prevent the army taking over again.

In other words, the two sides make each other possible and in the process, indispensable.

Internationally, the same tension projects the image of a precarious balance, one with Egypt teetering dangerously towards a Salafist abyss. The precariousness of the balance puts pressure on Egypt's neighbors to undertake certain actions to weaken the Islamist project and to reduce their popularity. But that pressure is mitigated by the army's veto power and they don't feel existentially threatened. Yet.

All in all, I would say, the Egyptian army and the Muslim Brotherhood need each other for the time being and any change in the balance of power would be detrimental to both of them.

So, I don't expect any significant changes in the short run.

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