There has not been a day since February 11, 2011, that Egyptian politics have ceased to surprise the world. Ever since the afternoon that Hosni Mubarak fell, the world’s most seasoned political analysts have struggled to make sense out of events. No one foresaw the fast-paced dynamic of the political game we have witnessed in recent days, exemplified in the swift and surprising decision by Mohamed Morsi, the non-charismatic Muslim Brotherhood President, to replace the long-standing leadership of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
A year and a half ago, after thirty years of dictatorial rule, the only scenarios that any Egyptian could envision were limited to whether Gamal Mubarak would succeed his father before or after the old man died! Now, as a reflection of the difficulty in understanding recent tumultuous events, a new slang pop term “Harrigh” meaning “fretting or fidgeting” has emerged to describe the endless discussions and the failed attempts to understand the present, let alone predict the future. International observers’ efforts to predict and understand events in Egypt have been as fruitless as those of the locals. International academics and policymakers tend to view Egypt through a Western lens, for which laws and institutions matter, or they try too hard to draw on lessons from elsewhere, claiming that Egypt is going to be another Algeria, Turkey, Pakistan or Iran. It’s time for everyone to realize that the situation in Egypt is unique to its own time, place and circumstances.
When the military council announced that Morsi had won the presidency, countless articles predicted that the military rulers had “allowed” Morsi to win just to see him fail. Facing many seemingly insurmountable problems (primarily the failing economy and the fluid security situation), many expected that counter revolutionary forces, with the help of hidden hands (the intelligence services), would fabricate crises of all sorts to help lead Morsi to failure.
Some saw this as the beginning of the end of the Brotherhood, while other astute analysts had more reserved opinions, with talks of co-habitation between the Islamists and the military (although most predicted inevitable military domination).
In true Egyptian fashion, we woke up the other day to a completely unexpected scenario, with a set of decisions by Morsi that effectively led the military and the Muslim Brotherhood to a civil divorce rather than the close relationship many had predicted. Certainly no one expected this split to occur so smoothly, with no objections raised by the deposed military leaders. Yet when we look closely at the features of Egypt’s internal power relations, the civility of the divorce should not come as a surprise, because both sides in Egypt have already been in a period of consensual separation; they had mutual interests but did not depend on each other.
If we have learned anything over the past 18 months, it is that no one seems to be privy to the actual behind-the-scenes deals. However, understanding certain features of the Egypt power game may shed light on how Egypt arrived at its present juncture, and what that portends for the future.
As in most dictatorships, Egypt has long suffered from the absence of rule of law and the dominance of a culture of impunity that has left institutions in all sectors in a state of corruption and disarray. Personal relations and common interest have been the keys to functioning in the country—in everything from buying bread to international arms deals. The majority of the business elite in Egypt (who are mostly liberals) enjoyed economic privileges due to their connections to Mubarak’s regime. Only few of them were tied to top political positions that they lost upon Mubarak’s fall (and are now either in prison or in exile); the majority who weren’t tied to the regime politically turned their back on Mubarak to save their economic interests (and their own skin).
At the same time, the army had a totally separate deal. The exclusive privileges that the army members enjoyed were neither dependent on private sector businesses nor the government budget. Military interests controlled over 40 percent of the Egyptian economy but they had their own separate economic resources, which is why it didn’t necessarily matter whether the Islamists or the liberals came to power, as long those resources, and the power to protect them, remained in the hands of the SCAF.
Therefore, if it chose to, the Muslim Brotherhood could have coexisted with SCAF under the same pre-existing arrangements, essentially replacing Mubarak’s National Democratic Party with the Freedom and Justice Party. However, Egypt’s problems are real and far from cosmetic, and the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have recognized, to a certain extent, that the Egyptian people will not stand for the status quo, while often reverting to repressive tactics when facing too much pressure from the outside.
In the absence of the rule of law and functioning institutions, the long-standing problems of economic decline, unemployment, severe income inequality, marginalization of minority groups and the fluid security situation would have inevitability led to violence and chaos. Basic services are failing. There are daily electricity blackouts and shortages of gas and water supplies even in the most affluent district of Egypt. Faced with real pressure as a result of these grave problems, Morsi has resorted to the same approach used by the old regime as well as the SCAF: media control, self-protection through legislative power, and appeals to populist sentiments. Over the past weeks, media outlets critical of Morsi have been censored, prosecuted or closed down. And the recent, widely welcomed announcement that Morsi has cancelled the supplementary constitutional amendment of the SCAF was tempered by the news that he implemented a new set of rules that grant him extensive and exclusive legislative and executive powers.
Many revolutionaries were happy to see Tantawi and his deputy disposed but were also disappointed by the announcement that the new Commander in Chief is Abdel Fatah El Sisi, the general famous for defending the brutal virginity tests conducted on female protesters last year. Coverage of the obvious problems associated with Morsi’s surprising announcement has been overwhelmed by the shock of the drastic decision. However, many media and observers asked sarcastically whether the new vice president, former appeals judge Mahmoud Mekky, is, as previously promised, a woman or a Christian (he is neither). Though the questions were intended to be humorous, they point to incredible lapses in both due process of law and in fulfillment of past promises. This may indicate that, once the fervor dies down, Morsi may not be able to sidestep criticism of these moves. Moreover, Egyptian media did not miss the fact that these decisions we announced just a day after Qatar deposited $2 billion in the Egyptian Central Bank—a curious connection that few see as coincidental.
No one can claim to predict with any confidence whether these cosmetic changes are the first steps toward more radical moves by the Muslim Brotherhood and the President; nor can they tell if they are instead the product of a consensual civil divorce between two amicably separated partners.
However, the more serious problem is that over the past 18 months the decrees issued by the SCAF, and later by Morsi, have not been founded on legal or constitutional grounds; rather, they indicate that the transitional path has been merely the continuation of haphazard, interest-based populist decisions. With the continued absence of rule of law and the gravity of the problems that Egyptians face, it is far from certain that things will remain calm. There are no guarantees that the civil divorce will remain civil.
Dr. Nancy Okail is the director of Freedom House’s Egypt program, Okail has a Ph.D. in international development from the University of Sussex, with a focus on the power relations of aid. She has more than 12 years of experience in promoting democracy and development in the MENA region, working with prominent international organizations. She has comprehensive knowledge of Egypt’s politics, having worked with the Egyptian government as senior evaluation officer of foreign aid at the Egyptian Ministry of International Cooperation, as well as program manager at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, a pro-democracy organization known for its long struggle against Mubarak’s regime.