Egypt

The Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will never see eye-to-eye on core issue such as the emergency law and human rights, but as long as they remain the two unrivaled power-brokers in the post-Mubarak system, these strange bedfellows have a strategic interest in cooperating to design the blueprint for a new political system that each of them hopes to dominate. 

At the moment, neither party seems interested in provoking an Islamist-military confrontation that would further destabilize an already fragile political environment.  As the two dominant players in the new Egypt, the SCAF and the Brotherhood have a lot to gain from the post-authoritarian political order, and stand to lose the most if it crumbles.

But while the Brotherhood has repeatedly affirmed support for the transitional roadmap proposed by the SCAF – through which the military would surrender its executive powers to an elected civilian president in June 2012 – the one flashpoint that could unravel this alliance is the process of drafting Egypt’s new constitution.  The 100-member parliament-appointed assembly that will be tasked with drafting the new charter will need to confront competing visions for a reconfigured balance of power in the new political system. 

While the Islamist majority in parliament has an interest in curbing the powers of the military establishment and executive branch to enhance the relative weight of the legislature, the SCAF has repeatedly signaled that it expects Egypt’s new constitution to protect the military’s privileged political status. In late December, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party issued a statement insisting that the new constitution cannot be legitimate unless it reflects consensus among all social and political forces represented in parliament. For the FJP, the constitution is the bottom line of its vision for the new Egypt and the juncture at which its strategic interests diverge sharply from the SCAF’s.  The Brotherhood has clearly defined the constitution as a SCAF-free zone, and any attempt by the military to trespass on this minefield could detonate a major confrontation over the future of Egypt’s legal framework.  

For the time being, the on-again off-again alliance between the Brotherhood and SCAF is on solid ground, as evidenced by the former’s recent string of conciliatory gestures toward the military:

  • Suggestions – later denied – that the Brotherhood might grant the SCAF immunity from legal and criminal accountability for its actions during and after the revolution
     
  • Agreeing to the SCAF’s timeline for a presidential election by June 2012 and rejecting calls from liberal and revolutionary political forces for a radically expedited power transfer with an election as early as January 25
     
  • Backing down from earlier statements asserting the right of the People’s Assembly to appoint a new cabinet representative of the political forces in parliament, and agreeing to support the current interim technocratic cabinet led by Kamal Ganzouri for another six months until July, by which time a new president will be in office.
     
  • Scaling back its previously stated aspirations for replacing Egypt’s presidential system – traditionally dominated by the executive branch – with a pure parliamentary system in which the president would functions largely as a symbolic figurehead.  Dropping earlier calls for a parliament-heavy system, the Brotherhood now claims that a “mixed presidential-parliamentary system is best for Egypt,” a watered-down proposal that will be far less worrisome to a military leadership that would like to retain its political privileges for as long as possible.

These concessions signal the FJP’s desire to promote dialogue and compromise between competing political forces in the lead-up to the first session of the People’s Assembly on January 23, as well as reassure US and European leaders of the party’s moderate and democratic credentials. In the highest level meeting on record between the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and visiting US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, FJP leader Mohamed Morsy said the party would work to cooperate with other political forces in the new parliament and restore security and political stability, essential to reviving Egypt’s ailing economy and creating a climate attractive to foreign investment.  With a near or possibly outright majority in the new parliament, the Brotherhood will bear the burden of reversing Egypt’s economic tailspin and seems to recognize that its ambitious political agenda will be impossible to implement without a steady stream of international support.  The Brotherhood is perfectly willing to play by the rules of the political game defined by the SCAF, as long as its winning streak continues.

But the one flashpoint on the horizon that seems capable of igniting a confrontation between the SCAF and Brotherhood over the future of Egypt’s political system is the debate over the new constitution, which has been overshadowed in recent months by the frenzy over parliamentary elections and persistent anti-military demonstrations. Initially, the SCAF and Brotherhood had both insisted that the constitution be written before the presidential election, purportedly to prevent Egypt’s next leader from wielding unchecked executive powers. But on December 10, the Brotherhood abruptly shifted its stance on the sequence of the constitutional process, urging the SCAF to conduct presidential elections as the 100-member constituent assembly is formed, implying that the new charter will not be drafted until after the inauguration of Egypt’s next leader. The SCAF, however, continues to lobby for the “constitution first” sequence, perhaps concerned that a civilian president would thwart the military’s efforts to legally codify a privileged political role for the military in the text of the charter. 

Despite dropping a controversial proposal for supra-constitutional principles in November that was slammed by the Brotherhood and other political forces as an effort to legally hardwire the military’s political and economic privileges in the new political system, the military still sees the constitution as the key to control of the political playing field and will likely seek new mechanisms to influence its content. For the Brotherhood, the SCAF’s interference in the constitutional process was the red line that brought its members back to Tahrir Square for mass demonstrations in November.  The Brotherhood has since been willing to scale back its ambitions in other areas, such as backing down from an earlier threat to dissolve the interim cabinet after parliamentary elections, but the constitution is one area where it will not easily yield any ground. 

For the Brotherhood, the constitution represents the legal blueprint for the post-Mubarak Egypt and the key to transforming its political project into an institutional reality. In a January 10 interview, senior FJP member Essam al-Erian identified the constitution as the single greatest challenge facing Egypt’s new government. “To have a democracy in the Arab world, to make compatibility between our Arab Islamic culture and democratic values, democratic principles … this is our huge burden,” he said. And the Brotherhood has made it perfectly clear that it intends to carry that burden without unwanted assistance from the SCAF. During his meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, FJP leader Mohamed Morsy claimed that there is a consensus among political forces on the first four articles of Egypt’s constitution concerning political freedoms and the rights of citizens, but not on the fifth, dealing with the powers of the president, the structure of the political system and the role of the military establishment.

The military’s role is the new political system will become an increasingly volatile fault line as debates over the new constitution begin in earnest. On January 10, al-Azhar issued a draft bill of rights intended to form the framework for Egypt’s new charter. In affirming basic freedoms of belief, equal opportunity and preventing sectarian strife, the document is clearly aimed at promoting a moderate interpretation of Islam over more conservative movements such as the Salafis, who advocate a strict literalist reading of the Koran and Islamic jurisprudence. Although the draft, which reflects a consensus among a broad ideological spectrum of liberal, secular and Islamist political forces, deals extensively with basic rights and liberties, the document steers clear of a far more controversial issue: If and how the constitution should reconfigure the balance of power between the military establishment, the president and the legislature in the future political system.

During a visit to Cairo on January 11, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter identified the military’s future powers and privileges – as defined by an amended legal framework – as “the basic question that has not yet been resolved.” In meetings with Carter, SCAF members were confident that the next constitution will reflect a “harmonious agreement” between the military and elected civilians.

But will the Islamists and the powerful al-Azhar religious establishment accept a legal framework that gives the military any formalized role in the political process?  Based on al-Azhar’s official statement on January 11 demanding a transfer of power to civilian leadership “on schedule and without delay,” any efforts by the SCAF to codify its privileges will likely be met with stiff opposition.  The Muslim Brotherhood and al-Azhar aren’t alone in their efforts to keep the military out of Egypt’s constitution. Al-Azhar is working to build consensus on its constitution vision among a broad spectrum of religious and political forces by hosting a major dialogue conference attended by Christian leaders, presidential candidates, as well as liberal and Islamist political parties, who endorsed a joint statement urging the military “to return to its natural role of defending the country’s borders.”

While the FJP has indicated its willingness to cooperate with the SCAF to maintain stability for the remainder of the transitional period, if the military tries to perpetuate its political powers by codifying them in the constitution, Egypt’s two major power-brokers are headed for a fiery fallout. The FJP may be willing to compromise on other political demands, at least in the short-term, but the party has clearly staked out the constitutional process as a SCAF-free domain. Any attempt to trespass on the Brotherhood’s territorial claim over the country’s future legal framework could turn the constitution into Egypt’s next battleground.    

Mara Revkin is the assistant director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photo Credit: MPR