On 1 September, several secular opposition leaders in Egypt, including Mohammed al Baradei and Hamdeen Sabbahi, the Nasserist politician who came third in the presidential election, declared a new coalition to oppose the Muslim Brotherhood’s “Freedom and Justice Party” [FJP] in new parliamentary elections.
Those elections are currently planned to be held two months after a new constitution is approved by referendum.
It is likely, of course, that the new constitution will reflect the Islamists’ current strength — which has been, from the outset, the fear of secular, liberal and leftist groups.
Leaders of the new coalition said that they aimed for a “civilian counterpart [to face] the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the religious currents in general...
“The civil current in Egypt is the one that carried out the struggle, and has the most credit for the January 25 revolution”.
In what has been called a “civilian coup”, on 13 August Egypt’s recently-elected president, Muhammed al Mursi, dismissed senior military figures from the government.
The move followed the “Sinai debacle” on 5 August — an attack by Islamic militants at the border with Gaza which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead. The incompetence of the military chiefs was widely blamed for the disaster.
Mursi’s cull hit the very highest level. Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi was Defence Minister, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and the effective ruler of Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Sami Anan was Chief of Army Staff. Mursi has replaced them with (relatively) younger and probably more docile military figures.
To increase his leverage vis-a-vis the pro-SCAF constitutional court, Mursi has appointed reformist judge Mahmoud Meki as his vice president.
He also — and perhaps even more significantly — nullified a previous constitutional declaration by SCAF, which had given the army vast powers and reduced the strength of the presidency.
Mursi replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.
This is a remarkable turnaround, and must have been planned in advance, Mursi only using events in Sinai as a pretext. Prior to the presidential election the country’s military leaders staged a bloodless coup of their own — dismissing the elected parliament. That was in June. In less than three months, Mursi has managed to turn the tables decisively.
Mursi was elected as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood — the largest and most powerful Islamist movement in the region.
Secular forces — both those sympathetic to the old regime and those who took part in the 2011 revolution — regard the new power of the Brotherhood (as well as the presidency, they won a majority in the parliament) with suspicion.
Mursi’s “coup” is a big step towards establishing control over all institutions of the state.
The week after the “civilian coup”, Mursi announced his team of assistants and advisers, which includes senior Brotherhood figures (such as Essem al Erian, probably the movement’s best known spokesperson). Six of the team — out of (so far) 21 — are from the Brotherhood; a further three are from the even more conservative Salafist Nur Party (which came second in the parliamentary elections); the rest are divided between various Islamist and liberal groups. Two are Coptic Christians.
Presumably, senior figures in the military approved the “civilian coup”, or there would have been more resistance to it. The Brotherhood’s relationship with the army has been, since February 2011 when SCAF took power from Mubarak, ambivalent.
The presidential election, in the end, was a face-off between Mursi and and SCAF’s man, Ahmed Shafiq. Mursi won — but only just, and on a less-than 50% turn-out. As the Asia Times put it, “his mandate was less than ‘overwhelming’.” (Aug 22).
But for much of the past eighteen months relations have been friendly between the Brotherhood and the army. And Mursi is unlikely to seek a break with the United States, which has backed the Egyptian military to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
Democratic and secular groups need to be on their guard against efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood to seize even wider control.
The young labour movement, too: it needs to find a way to political independence rather than leaving opposition to the Brotherhood in the hands of economically conservative liberals.