Egypt's Islamists driven into the arms of an old enemy

The Muslim Brotherhood needs allies. And it chose not to reach out to the secular and leftist parties, instead to seize the opportunity to launch a cultural revolution by reconnecting Egypt with its Islamic roots.

The posting of tanks outside the presidential palace yesterday morning raises an uncomfortable question for the future of Egypt: is the result of last year's revolution going to be just more military rule, under a light frosting of Islamist politics?

The new president, Mohammed Morsi, a senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, is the first Egyptian leader in modern times not to have come from the military. At the time of his slim victory in the presidential election - 51.7 per cent against 48.3 per cent for Ahmed Shafiq, a holdover from the Mubarak era - he seemed to incarnate the principle of civilian rule.

When he walked on to Tahrir Square to show himself to the revolutionaries, he was greeted with joy. Whatever qualms the crowds harboured in their hearts about being ruled by the Muslim Brotherhood's political offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party, there was a feeling that civilians would at last be running Egypt.

In the course of this week, Mr Morsi has been forced to flee his presidential palace by angry crowds protesting at what they see as a power grab: a decree insulating his decisions from judicial oversight, followed by a rush to put a new constitution, drawn up by the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies, to a snap referendum in defiance of calls for a proper national debate.

As protesters gathered outside the presidential palace on Wednesday, Muslim Brotherhood supporters were despatched to "cleanse" the square and tear down the tents. Mr Morsi now has to shelter behind the barrels of tanks.

It all sounds tragically reminiscent of the Mubarak era, when the ruling party sent hired thugs to remove the revolutionaries from Tahrir Square. The difference, of course, is that at that time the army showed great tactical nous and made a show of siding with the people. Now, to all appearances, it is back defending the new status quo. The country is split, and predictions of civil war are mounting.

According to Ahmed El Sharif, a political science lecturer at the American University of Cairo, the new draft constitution to be put to referendum on December 15 is the work of the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and their ultra-traditionalist allies, the Salafists. It allows the army to continue to be "a state within a state".

This sounds surprising. It was Mr Morsi who forced the resignation of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military junta that took power after the departure of Hosni Mubarak. That did indeed happen, but the generals did not need much arm-twisting to go back to the barracks. They had discovered that they were poorly equipped to rule in a hectic postrevolutionary situation. Governing ate away at the army's prestige.

The draft constitution shows that in return for going quietly, they have preserved many of their prerogatives.

The post of defence minister must be held by a military officer. The military's budget will be beyond parliamentary oversight, overseen instead by a national defence council that includes top military officers and members of the government. Military trials, that the Scaf had used to hand out summary justice to thousands of civilians, will not be abolished, but will be restricted to crimes that harm the military.

No doubt the military wanted more, but this seems a good crop of privileges to have enshrined in the constitution. Clearly, the military's instincts for self-preservation have not atrophied. But does that mean Egypt is headed for an era of military rule? Not necessarily, but if the politicians prove incapable, then the answer has to be yes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, with almost half the voters who took part in the elections opting for the candidate of the old regime, needs allies. It chose not to reach out to the secular and leftist parties, but instead to seize the opportunity of its victory in the parliamentary and presidential elections to launch a cultural revolution, reconnecting Egypt with its Islamic roots after two centuries of western influence.

The police are still discredited so the army has become the Brotherhood's key ally. The country is running out of money and the government - indeed any government at this time - will need to take some unpopular decisions. It has now gone to the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8 billion (Dh16.7 billion) loan.

This is not the place to discuss whether the IMF's medicine is what Egypt needs. The simple fact is that going to the IMF is the easiest way to unlock sources of funding. But in return for the money, the Egyptian government will have to rein in the food and energy subsidies that are crippling its budget. Inevitably, this will lead to falling standards of living in some sections of society, prompting trade union and political protests. It looks like the army will be the government's mailed fist, now that it has its prerogatives written into the constitution.

These social tensions might be manageable, if the president was a person who could win over the people.

Disturbingly, Mr Morsi has hidden from public view during the crisis, sending out his vice president, Mahmoud Makki, to muddy the issues rather than making any concrete proposals. The explanation given is that Mr Morsi has to coordinate his words and actions with the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. If this is the case, then far from being the president of all Egyptians, he has fallen into a trap of appearing to be the Islamist movement's delegate.

Perhaps this is understandable: the Brotherhood has worked as an underground, or at least semi-clandestine organisation, for almost a century. Habits of secrecy are not easily forgotten, especially when the Brotherhood is turning on its old allies - the Tahrir revolutionaries - and cosying up to its old tormentor, the military.

The label of "Pharaoh" sits uneasily on Mr Morsi, an engineer who trained in the US. But it is vital that he displays an inclusive approach that is desperately lacking at the moment. Otherwise, Egypt is going to be stuck in its old dictatorial rut.

On Twitter: @aphilps

Published: December 7, 2012 04:00 AM


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