Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Egyptian collapse is likely

  • Print

From the moment the Egyptian regime was toppled in February 2011, the nation's military and its Islamic democrats were set on a collision course. Now we're seeing the crash.

Aided by a Constitutional Court ruling rolling back parliamentary elections, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has dissolved parliament and appointed 100 "experts" to write a new constitution. For good measure, the military stripped the powerful Egyptian presidency of existing powers -- just in time, because the next day it became clear that Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, had won the presidency. Parliament plans to convene next week with its own constitutional committee. Egypt is far beyond constitutional crisis: it is teetering on the edge of collapse.

For those who greeted last year's Arab Spring with excitement and optimism, it may be surprising that the central conflict in Egyptian politics is between the military and the Islamists. After all, it was a cross-section of Egyptian society, galvanized and to some degree led by young secularists, that brought the country to a standstill and a long-serving dictator to his knees. In demanding freedom, Egypt seemed to have reclaimed its historic position at the vanguard of the Arab world.

But experienced observers knew that the Egyptian situation was far more complicated than it seemed from Tahrir Square. For one thing, the protesters didn't actually bring down Hosni Mubarak. By refusing to leave the square even under violent pressure from the police, they weakened the president drastically. It was the army that delivered the coup de grace.

Alone, the protesters probably could not have forced him to resign. By declaring Mubarak's presidency over, the military asserted that it was ultimately in charge. This decision to jettison Mubarak did not stem from ideals, but from the fact that Mubarak was old and there was no easy transition in sight. The military council was gambling that it could ride out the wave of public unrest more effectively without the figurehead of traditional autocracy.

As for the Islamists, they rallied to the cause of the Arab Spring only very late in the game. The Muslim Brotherhood knew perfectly well that most of the people in Tahrir Square were not its constituents. Nearly a century of resistance to Egypt's autocrats had taught the Brothers that quiescence, not revolt, was the way to stay alive.

Yet the Brotherhood came up with a brilliant strategy -- to gain power through democratic action. A protest movement, no matter how broad-based, is not the same as a formal election. Demonstrations involve speaking up, spontaneous action and bravery. Politics requires deep organization, legwork and stolid respectability.

The Brotherhood believed, correctly, that regime change would lead to an election. And they knew they could shine. Since the Algerian elections of 1990, Islamic democrats had won the majority of the seats they contested in every even modestly free election in the Arabic-speaking world.

The Brothers were lucky. The revolutionaries of Tahrir Square were instinctual democrats. Whether out of sincerity, naiveté or a combination, they demanded elections that were sure to deny them power. The military went along. The Brotherhood won the biggest share in the parliament -- and now it has won the presidency, too.

So the army represents the traditional power structure in Egypt, and the Brotherhood represents the will of the people. Their clash is the real thing: a head-to-head confrontation between autocratic force and popular majoritarianism. Its resolution will determine the future of democracy in the entire Arab world.

The struggle could be peacefully resolved in several ways -- none very likely. The Brotherhood could fold, accepting the position of token power under the thumb of the military, as its Moroccan wing has done under King Muhammad VI. This would mean sacrificing credibility as well as ideology. If the Brotherhood were to accept a subordinate position, it would squander its opportunity to marry religious legitimacy with constitutional democracy -- its goal for two decades.

Alternatively, in a perfect Brotherhood world, the public would return to the streets in opposition to the army and the Supreme Council could back down, accepting the Brotherhood's electoral victory in exchange for a promise to allow the military to keep its $1 billion-plus in annual U.S. aid. The difficulty is that a substantial minority -- 48 per cent -- of Egyptians voted for the military's preferred presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik.

Given the extent of its public support, there is little reason for the army to go gently. Nor will it be content to control a U.S.-bankrolled military fiefdom -- the generals know that over time, the Brotherhood will try to change the army by urging the promotion of younger, Islamist officers.

There is one model for compromise between the Brotherhood and the military: Turkey since the Justice and Development Party took power in 2002. The Turkish military has gradually lost its controlling place, a fact the Supreme Council will not ignore. But Turkey is comparatively rich, stable and happy -- and that, too, is relevant.

Egyptians would also do well to recall the example of Algeria. After the first contemporary Arab democratic experiment took place there two decades ago, the military reacted to Islamist victory by reversing the electoral results and declaring martial law. The war that followed lasted for years. More than 100,000 people were killed in vicious fighting. Unless the Brotherhood and the military find common ground, Egypt will be on a similar path.

 

Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University is a Bloomberg View columnist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 21, 2012 A15

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Andrew Ladd reflects on the season

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • A baby Red Panda in her area at the Zoo. International Red Panda Day is Saturday September 15th and the Assiniboine Park Zoo will be celebrating in a big way! The Zoo is home to three red pandas - Rufus, Rouge and their cub who was born on June 30 of this year. The female cub has yet to be named and the Assiniboine Park Zoo is asking the community to help. September 14, 2012  BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
  • Challenges of Life- Goose Goslings jump over railway tracks to catch up to their parents at the Canadian Pacific Railway terminalon Keewatin St in Winnipeg Thursday morning. The young goslings seem to normally hatch in the truck yard a few weeks before others in town- Standup photo- ( Day 4 of Bryksa’s 30 day goose project) - Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Do you think Manitoba needs stronger regulations for temporary workers?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google