Egypt: Heading for more turbulence

RSIS presents the following commentary Egypt: Heading for more turbulence by James
M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print it, click on this link.). Kindly
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No. 107/2012 dated 21 June 2012

Egypt: Heading for more turbulence
By James M. Dorsey


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.


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

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

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.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
(RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering the Middle East
for over 30 years.

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