Egypt: Heading for more turbulence

For­mer Egypt­ian pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak’s fight for life dur­ing a key stage in his country’s trou­bled tran­si­tion, is unlike­ly to influ­ence the course of events. Egypt’s mil­i­tary rulers are bat­tling it out with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood and pro­po­nents of polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic reforms in a deci­sive phase of Egypt’s effort to move from autoc­ra­cy to a more demo­c­ra­t­ic state.

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Egypt’s for­mer pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak was fight­ing for his life this week as the country’s elec­toral com­mit­tee post­poned announc­ing the results of the pres­i­den­tial run-off between Ahmed Shafiq, a for­mer air force gen­er­al and last prime min­is­ter under Mr. Mubarak, and Mus­lim Broth­er­hood leader Mohammed Mor­si. With both can­di­dates claim­ing vic­to­ry, irre­spec­tive of who­ev­er emerges vic­to­ri­ous, the out­come of the elec­tion promis­es to increase volatil­i­ty and unrest rather than put Egypt back on a path towards polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty and eco­nom­ic recovery. 

Vic­to­ry for Mr. Shafiq would leave the Broth­er­hood feel­ing robbed of its elec­toral gains, while the youth and mil­i­tant soc­cer fan groups who drove last year’s mass protests that oust­ed Mr. Mubarak after 30 years in office, would feel that their revolt had been hijacked. 

Eigh­teen months of tran­si­to­ry mil­i­tary rule have already taught them that over­throw­ing the head of state is a far cry from uproot­ing an entrenched polit­i­cal sys­tem. The prob­lem of the youth and soc­cer fan groups is that while Egypt’s arm­chair activists, the country’s silent major­i­ty, large­ly long for change, they may well opt for sta­bil­i­ty in the short run rather than the volatil­i­ty, unrest and vio­lence that push­ing for real change would like­ly involve. 

The jok­er in the pack is the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, a cau­tious polit­i­cal move­ment that has proven to be inclined to com­pro­mise rather than rock the boat. The Broth­er­hood, like Mr. Shafiq has declared vic­to­ry in the pres­i­den­tial run-off and has threat­ened a sec­ond pop­u­lar revolt if the elec­toral com­mis­sion fails to con­firm this. The Broth­er­hood has already called for mass protests on Cairo’s Tahrir Square against what it sees as the military’s usurpa­tion of pow­er. Unlike the youth and soc­cer fan groups, the Broth­er­hood still has the pow­er to bring large num­bers of its fol­low­ers on to the streets. 

Turn­ing con­fronta­tion­al

A Mor­si vic­to­ry how­ev­er would not make the sit­u­a­tion in Egypt any less volatile. The rul­ing Supreme Coun­cil of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in a series of moves in the past week has effec­tive­ly neutered the incom­ing pres­i­dent by declar­ing that he would only be in office until a new par­lia­ment is elect­ed and a new con­sti­tu­tion pro­mul­gat­ed. The mil­i­tary coun­cil dis­solved Egypt’s first freely elect­ed, post Mubarak people’s assem­bly after the Con­sti­tu­tion­al Court declared the elec­tion of one third of its mem­bers uncon­sti­tu­tion­al. SCAF fur­ther issued an annex to the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion giv­ing it a sig­nif­i­cant role in the draft­ing of a new con­sti­tu­tion, depriv­ing the new pres­i­dent of the right to ini­ti­ate new leg­is­la­tion and strip­ping him of con­trol of the defence bud­get and the military. 

If the top­pling of Mubarak was rel­a­tive­ly blood­less com­pared to the over­throw of Libyan leader Moam­mar Qaddafi and the bru­tal 15-month old strug­gle to depose Syr­i­an pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad, the next phase in the bat­tle for Egypt’s future threat­ens to be far more con­fronta­tion­al. The mil­i­tary last year cham­pi­oned the pro­test­ers’ cause because that allowed it to pro­tect its polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social interests. 

The rise of the deep state

Those inter­ests are now at stake as the mil­i­tary is pit­ted against the pro­test­ers, the Broth­er­hood and oth­ers seek­ing to curb the military’s pow­ers and return it to the bar­racks. The mil­i­tary has, since Mubarak’s fall, refrained from reform­ing the inte­ri­or min­istry and the secu­ri­ty forces that were the bru­tal enforcers of the for­mer president’s regime. It recent­ly declared its right to make arbi­trary arrests in what many see as a return of the police state. In doing so, the mil­i­tary has focused atten­tion on the Egypt­ian deep state – a net­work of vest­ed polit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and busi­ness inter­ests — sim­i­lar to the one in Turkey that took decades to uproot. 

The return of the police state, the emas­cu­la­tion of the pres­i­den­cy and the res­ur­rec­tion of the inte­ri­or min­istry in the old regime’s mould pits the mil­i­tary not only against the Broth­er­hood, the country’s fore­most polit­i­cal force, but also against the ultras, Egypt’s fear­less, street-bat­tle hard­ened group of mil­i­tant soc­cer fans who have years of expe­ri­ence in con­fronting the secu­ri­ty forces and for whom an unre­con­struct­ed inte­ri­or min­istry has the effect of wav­ing a red cloth at a bull. 

Also sharp­en­ing the bat­tle lines is the state­ment by mil­i­tary offi­cials to state-owned news­pa­per Al Ahram that it would not allow the Broth­er­hood to take pow­er. The paper quot­ed a mil­i­tary source as say­ing that the mil­i­tary would only return to the bar­racks once “a bal­anced polit­i­cal process” had been achieved, a code word for a sys­tem that guar­an­tees the military’s sway over pol­i­tics as well as its eco­nom­ic priv­i­leges and social perks. The source jus­ti­fied the military’s posi­tion in nation­al­ist terms by por­tray­ing the Broth­er­hood as a pawn of the Unit­ed States and the Euro­pean Union. 

A Mor­si vic­to­ry gives reform­ers a chance to fight for greater account­abil­i­ty, trans­paren­cy and free­dom from with­in the sys­tem. How­ev­er, like a Shafiq vic­to­ry, it is unlike­ly to make the tran­si­tion in Egypt any less volatile. Nor will the out­come of the pres­i­den­tial run-off trans­form Cairo’s Tahrir Square any time soon from being a focal point for polit­i­cal agi­ta­tion to sim­ply func­tion­ing as a traf­fic cir­cle. In the unfold­ing bat­tle, Mubarak dead or alive has become a side event in a show that threat­ens to be messy and poten­tial­ly violent. 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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