, , , , ,

This morning I awoke to find large headlines concerning the Egyptian military’s ‘ultimatum.’  The ultimatum itself suggests that Egyptian factions must work together for the broader interests of the country or face some form of intervention.  Based on cursory social media examinations, and talking to some friends in Cairo, it is clear that most are taking this as a direct threat by the military against President Morsi and probably the Muslim Brotherhood.  But the Secretary General of the Salafi party Hezb el-Nour, Shaaban Abd el-Alim has expressed concerns.

The scope or possibility of such ‘intervention,’ is yet unclear.  And it is likely to become clearer within the forty-eight hour period underlined by the military.  Below that headline on Egypt Independent, is a discussion of a firefight between guards of Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Khairat el-Shater and presumably Central Security services.  It is possible that this is a telling sign.

But it is not entirely clear cut.  Many observers, myself not included, believed that the appointment of Defense Minister Abdul Fatah el-Sisi was a means of letting Chief of Staff Sami Anan and former Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to back out quietly and without prosecution.  This, along with clear dealings between the Brotherhood and military during the January revolution, and probable dealings just before the outcome of the Presidential Election was announced, the Brotherhood is probably not seen as an uncooperative partner of the military.

That being said, they are by no means natural allies.  Egypt’s history is intertwined with the political aspirations of the military.  Though these are hard to define, top officials have probably signaled that they consider their economic domination over production more important than overt control of politics.

I find it, often, difficult to write about Egypt because I probably do not know enough to engage the level of the best scholars.  But I know enough to be unable to engage lay audiences.  A very good summary of the situation can be found here, http://nisralnasr.blogspot.com/.  But I am interested in why the military would issue an ultimatum that could be interpreted as re-embroiling them in public politics?  The outcomes are that Morsi stays or goes; and it is not clear that the military benefits from the latter – particularly if it returns them to the unpopular and unenviable position of governing.

Republic, Democracy, or Façade

The first weekend of the revolution, though not during the first few days, the Muslim Brotherhood became a participant and powerbroker in the ongoing mass demonstrations.  On the first level, first Brotherhood members went to protest, and eventually the organization could no longer remain neutral – particularly when it looked like the revolutionaries’ efforts might succeed.  And as that singularity approached, they also served to negotiate both with members of the increasingly former National Democratic Party and with the military.  The results of such negotiations are unclear.

Because of their longstanding anathema to successive administrations and governments of Egypt’s republican system, stalwarts of Egypt’s republic were concerned.  In reality, the Brotherhood probably first officially forayed into mainstream Egyptian politics with the Parliamentary elections in 2005 – at the latest.  It is difficult to believe that 87 Muslim Brotherhood MPs could have been elected to Parliament under an obviously rigged system without an unspoken level of complicity.

But this did not achieve the type of blowback that the Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party have experienced since the January revolution.  Such blowback is much but not entirely deserved.  Nisr al-Nasr says it much better than I can, but while President Morsi has proven relatively incompetent, he has also become a symbol for wounds that have taken decades to fester.  However, he and the Brotherhood’s leadership are not entirely deserving of pity.

Protests yesterday, if nothing else, have illustrated the lack of hegemony the Brotherhood has in Egyptian politics.  But in their new positions, both Brotherhood politicians and President Morsi have taken front rows in helping shape official rhetoric.  To a large extent this means accusing foreign spies helping secularists and liberals.  This has persisted, with some success, despite recent revelations that the President was freed from prison with the illegal assistance of Hamas and Hezbollah; and a recent report highlighting Salafi groups as the only provable recipients of foreign assistance – aside from obviously the government and military.

The dangers of attempts at manipulation are generally clear.  This rhetoric was not enough of a distraction to ultimately win back mass support for either Mubarak or the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces when they had power.  But it was successful in the Referendum of 2011 and probably in the Parliamentary elections.  This would not necessarily be clear from data.  But it was common knowledge at the time that Islamists offered religious pressure on election lines and helped frame the 2011 Referendum in exclusivist religious terms.

The latter was very unusual.  When I asked a local young man who worked at a nearby market how he voted, he explained he voted ‘Yes’ to rebuild the nation.  That’s a valid viewpoint.  But upon further examination, he and others explained that FJP (most commonly) volunteers (or impressed volunteers) suggested voting ‘No’ was part of the Gay-Christian-Secularist agenda.  The issue of a civil state was framed around Civil versus Islamic, rather than the actual issue – which was Civil versus Military.

Again, Nisr al-Nasr probably does this better, but the Brotherhood refused to initially field a Presidential candidate and delineated a quota for their Parliamentary run.  Presumably this was to assuage public and military fears that they would try to take the government over and run it in as clandestine and unaccountable a manner as their organization.  They ultimately reneged on both issues.  They also pressured the SCAF to amend electoral laws to their favor.  They seemed genuinely shocked when the law was declared unconstitutional for violating very clear terms set forth for elections therein.  But worse still, SCAF and then Morsi hung their hats on referendums that did not meet minimum internationally accepted requirements for legitimate referendums.  Generally a floor for participation is set – so that if there is 30% turnout and 51% accept it, that minority cannot bind all of society to a constitutional arrangement in which they did not participate.  The actual proportion of Egyptians that accepted the 2012 Referendum was closer to 21% – 33% turnout and 64% acceptance.  But to the new Egyptian democrats, voting is apparently enough – even, or especially, when the content of the electoral platform is unknown.

And then, again, President Morsi has attempted several extra-judicial or extra-constitutional moves, for whatever reason.  Most visibly, he seized legislative power after the dissolution of the lower house of Parliament; and he tried to unconstitutionally dismiss a private prosecutor.  The latter issue is very interesting.  While Abdel Magid’s inability to prosecute former officials has a number of possible explanations, it is not clear he is outright corrupt.  Anger over him is more symbolic anger over a general failure to achieve legal justice after the abuses of the revolution.  Nisr al-Nasr’s author mentions Morsi’s claim to fame being the minimum wage hike – but also points out that this preceded the President’s election by six months.

Clausewitz believed that war was a clumsy extension of politics.  Morsi is not a graceful politician.  But he is not deserving of pity, because he has allowed himself to become the exceptional president.  Whereas Mubarak was clearly a tyrant, he had developed a system as a front of that tyranny.  In fairness, the poor design and violence of that system has led us to this point.  But rather than shaping some new way, the current President has attempted to default on the corrupt values of the old system.  He has increasingly defaulted on its language as well.  And this betrays both a lack of vision and a sense of entitlement that probably encourage public anger.  His speech, in some ways arguably reminiscent of Mubarak’s second to last official speech, is a decent exemplar.

Extrapolating Factional Support Issues from Previous Election Data

There is something even a little more dangerous, in that there does not appear to be accountability associated with democracy.  So far, Egyptians have been given no reason to believe that voting for anyone is likely to produce an outcome that will heed their interests more closely.  In part, these may simply be the difficulties of a nascent, unstable system.  But in present conditions, they absolutely do not seem to tend toward a stable equilibrium.

In my previous post, I used a very (very) simple model to suggest that unequal defections primarily from Secular Revolutionary forces to the Presidential candidacies of Morsi and Shafiq may have played the pivotal role in the 2012 Presidential Election.  Clear Parliamentary results are much more difficult to get at – I recall seeing them in greater detail at some point, but I suspect this must not have been through the electoral commission.  However, district-level results are available at least for the proportional representation aspect of the election.  But these unfortunately do not correspond to other electoral districts, so the most specific comparisons can only be made at the governorate level.

My reading of the relatively complicated Parliamentary results suggests that based on votes rather than seat allocation, the ‘Islamist Establishment’ received 36.5% and the Islamist Independents 30.5%; the secular remnants of the former regime received just over 20% of the ballot, whereas Secular Revolutionaries received just under 13%.  There is a slight inconsistency between this estimation and my estimate based on presidential candidates:

Islamist Establishment Islamist Independent Secularist Regime Secularist Revolutionary
Parliamentary 36.46% 30.48% 20.12% 12.94%
Presidential 25.72% 19.62% 34.37% 20.29%

One can make several possible conclusions.  The public may have moved away from Islamism as an inherent ‘good,’ devoid of any procedural clarification or platform offerings.  Alternatively, selection criteria may have been quite different in either election, or a different sample may have participated in either.  When polled recently by an official Egyptian government organization, just over 50% claimed they would not reelect Morsi.  It may be the case that a trend of disillusionment – particularly with the Islamist-dominated Parliament – may be continuing.


It seems there is probably a good deal of truth to the increasing polarization between Islamism and Secularism.  But it is not clear which direction or form that will take.  I would be personally shocked if the majority of the country wants a return to military rule – or to explicit military rule, rather.  But the data does support a large minority or possibly plurality might not be totally opposed.  That is to say, a minority remains nominally aligned with former regime forces at least in official data.

But this simply suggests that a recurrent coup might be plausible.  It does not imply that such action would benefit the military.  Quite the opposite, the situation now is very similar to that in January 2011.  Commentators, as the President himself and his supporters, harp on the fact that President Morsi is the first democratically elected President.  But he has aptly shown that democracy need not inherently lead to responsiveness or accountability.  But moreover, his election may reveal failings in the Egyptian electoral system more than it may reveal the desires of the Egyptian electorate.

A cartoon was recently posted by We Are All Khaled Said (Arabic) showing the military whispering into the ears of the masses that the country needed a return to military rule.  And then the people turn and shout for the military to return.  But it is a valid fear because of the clear calculation involved in intercession during the January revolution – a decision and mobilization not at all made on the fly.

The military has seen the fickleness of the people’s political will.  Morsi is as much a victim of a climate of revolution and mobilization that had briefly returned to apathy and despair.  And the President, while clearly trying to live one day at a time, has fallen prey to a problem common to Egyptian political actors – he cannot see passed the evening into the next day.  And so managing crisis badly has not really led to anything new; and it has merely allowed poor crisis management.  But the military has literally just ‘learned this lesson.’

The idea that they would once again take the baton, even in the face of polarization, is unlikely.  More likely, they are trying to put pressure on the President for a real salvation government – for instance, with a Prime Minister not from the Brotherhood.  As Morsi has bumbled along intractably, quite publicly, he has attracted a lot of attention to Egypt’s economy and politics.  He has even contributed to having some aid for the military held up in Washington.  In fairness, that’s really their fault, but he has remained notably silent for one who supposedly guides the state’s mouthpieces.

I suspect the military is trying to deflect from international attention, and put severe pressure on an otherwise clandestine group to be an actual democratic political player.  A friend wrote an article some months ago lauding the ‘democratic Islamists.’  I offered a scathing analysis on Facebook.  But the reality is that many Islamists see the winner-takes-all system as inherently democratically equitable.  And hence an unarmed, harassed and unprotected minority is simply trying to oppress and harass the well-organized, pseudo-militant majority.  But such are the first pangs of fascism.  Where the non-Brotherhood populace may not find a friend in Morsi, the military probably has.  But the relationship must have come to a head enough that they felt the need to chastise publicly as a means of additional pressure.