The Egyptian Spring frozen between Islamists and the military

The Egyptian version of the “Arab Spring” ended, not blooming in a democracy fought for by the young revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, but frozen in the cold hard hands of fundamentalism and the military. It was not the sight for sore eyes expected after last weekend’s runoff election for president.

Fortunately, in the heat of the first wave of this revolution, the young Egyptians managed to toss out a dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and won the right to the first free elections in their history, though the victory did freeze finally in the hard hands of the Muslim Brotherhood’s self-declared winner of the presidential runoff, Mohammed Morsi, 60. What’s more, the generals who backed Mubarak remained loyal, solid as blocks of ice to their principles.

The Muslim Brotherhood asserted its candidate, Morsi, froze out his military-backed rival, the former prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafik, in last weekend’s election. But a chilling legal maneuver by Cairo’s military rulers made clear the generals planned to freeze controls for now—even if Shafik’s refusal to leave turns out to be justified and real.

“This is more an episode in an ongoing power struggle than a real election,” Anthony Cordesman, a veteran former U.S. intelligence official and now an analyist for the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Reuters.

He added, “It is unclear who will rule, who the real leaders will be, and who—if anyone—represents the people. What is clear is that Egypt is no closer to stability and a predictable path to the future than before.”

In reality though, the new president will take a back seat for some time at least to the 20-man military council which last year iced fellow officer Mubarak to cool off and dampen the heat of street protesters. So, patience must be exercised by them. One thing is sure. They can’t turn around and go back in time. “It’s either fight or flight.”

In this latest twist on Egypt’s long road to democracy, the generals issued a decree on Sunday as voting ended which, in effect, froze the wings of the president, setting strict limits on his powers and recalling the lawmaking rights held by the assembly it dissolved last week. This led some critics to call “Mr. Morsi a toothless figurehead under the thumb of an authoritarian military council that doesn’t seem likely to relinquish power anytime soon.”

“This is their insurance policy against a Muslim Brotherhood victory. It shows the extent to which they (the generals) are willing to go to maintain their interest and their stranglehold on power,” said Salman Shaikh of the Brookings Doha Center.

The Muslim Brotherhood vs. the military

The power struggle will almost certainly escalate between the two powers after the army, which controls sectors of Egypt’s economy, let it be known clearly that it had no intention of handing power to its old enemy, the feared Muslim Brotherhood. This does not bode well for an early end to hostilities.

“This is the culmination of decades of head-butting between the army and Islamists,” Shaikh said. “This could really explode.”

“If we see any more aggressive approach then we will be talking about something similar to Algeria,” he said, referring to Algeria in 1992, when the army dissolved parliament after the Islamists won a vote and 20 years of conflict followed.

Adding to the legal freeze, a ruling in a case challenging the legality of the Brotherhood, which under Mubarak was banned, could be issued on Tuesday.

The rulings put more powers in the army’s hands, that is, after the justice ministry gave the generals and intelligence service extraordinary powers to arrest, detain and prosecute civilians without judicial warrants. Sounds NDAA-ish, doesn’t it?

“What happened shows that it [the military] is a very deep state, not willing to let go. It shows a dark side of this regime,” Shaikh said.

Despite its victory declaration based on initial counts which gave it 52 percent compared to 48 percent, the Brotherhood is not off the hook yet.

There are a many possibilities under which the Brotherhood victory could be sabotaged. Although monitoring officials have broadly given guarded approval to the vote, there may yet be enough reports of irregularities if a determined state desires to use the judiciary to question the result.

The task, diplomats said, would be on the United States, of course, the major patron and paymaster of the army. The U.S. would have to pressure Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi to meet his own deadline of July 1 for giving up control and allowing a civilian president to rule.

The two candidates faced off in a run-off which polarized the nation and left a section of society that ousted Mubarak in popular protests out of the game, with neither of the candidates appealing to their liberal or reformist goals.

Many voters were shocked by the choice between a man seen as Mubarak’s heir and the nominee of a religious party whom they worried would reverse liberal social traditions.

Yet, the Brotherhood has challenged the army’s power to dissolve parliament and warned of “dangerous days” ahead. But their stamina, diplomats and observers said, has been drained by 16 months of a messy and often bloody transition.

Diplomats said the group, outlawed under Mubarak, may likely avoid confrontation on the streets for fear of offering its challengers in the deep state a pretext to crack down on them.

“What the counter revolutionary forces would like is for the Muslim Brotherhood to throw their forces onto the street then there would be a real pogrom. That is why I don’t think it will happen,” said one senior Western diplomat.

He added, “I think the Brotherhood . . . would keep their people under control.”

Broken promises

Tensions flared first with the military when the Islamist group reneged on their pledge not to run for the presidency, an about-face that came hard on the heels of a larger victory in parliament than it had said it would aim for.

The diplomat said it was “a shock to everybody,” notably the army when the Brotherhood named Khairat al-Shater as the group’s first choice, only to have him disqualified, forcing it to name Morsi instead.

Adding to its missteps, legislation proposed by some of its MPs to impose Islamic strictures was what turned the tide of public support against them. Some Egyptians also looked nervously at Islamist-fuelled militancy and violence in Tunisia.

For many Egyptians, their revolution, which followed Tunisia’s, now seems victim of a coup by generals who changed the chief executive, Mubarak, but have not touched the deep state, like the hidden bottom of an iceberg, that kept him and his predecessors in power for six decades.

Since the army toppled the colonial-era monarchy in 1952, it has built massive wealth and commercial interests across industries, followed by a close U.S. alliance that came with the signing in 1979 of a peace treaty with Israel. With this web of interests and alliances, it is unlikely it will let go of its power.

The worry for the military is that the Brotherhood could eventually challenge their position, just as Turkey’s AK Party with its Islamist has reined in the generals there. The military also worries that Islamists with their fiery anti-Israel rhetoric will weaken the deal with Israel.

Regionally, the rise to power of the Brotherhood in the Arab world’s most populous nation would also upset Gulf Arab monarchies which have managed to avoid being swept away by an Arab Spring that has also toppled leaders in Tunis, Libya and Yemen.

Israel worries that the fierce Brotherhood will spur on its offshoot, the Islamist Palestinian Hamas movement, which is at war with Israel.

Despite all the regional and domestic misgivings, the election was truly unprecedented for a nation which has never given ordinary Egyptians the chance to freely pick their leaders in a history that stretches back thousands of years. That counts for quite a bit.

But a “toothless president,” a dissolved parliament and a rising military in a country without a constitution is not what most Egyptians had in mind when they poured onto the streets to drive out Mubarak at the start of 2011.

“It is not the end of the story, but somebody flipped us back to page one,” the diplomat said.

Shaikh said, “Egypt is increasingly hard-wired for greater chaos and instability. It is an extremely tense and volatile environment. Nobody knows what will happen,” Yet, nobody knows when this frozen Egyptian Spring will thaw and bloom into the summer of democracy. It seems still worth fighting for.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer, life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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