North Africa, West Asia

Egypt’s presidential run-off: legal limbo and the transition to nowhere

The best way for the military to retain its privileges would be to step back from its high-visibility role. The more time that passes, though, the higher the cost of doing this will be — as the military’s iron grip on institutions drives opposition forces towards, and not away, from each other

Andrea Teti Gennaro Gervasio
19 June 2012

The first round of Egypt’s presidential elections was a blow to would-be pro-democracy revolutionaries: not only did no ‘revolutionary’ candidate make it to the second round, but the run-off choice forced upon Egyptians was between one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders, Muhammad Morsi, and none other than Mubarak’s last Prime Minister and long-time Aviation Minister Ahmad Shafiq. Much of what followed was a tortured debate about which candidate was the least bad, or whether to abstain entirely. Affluence to vote in the second round run-off was noticeably lower – some predict as low as Mubarak-era 20% – and the mood among many formerly enthusiastic voters was decidedly downbeat. In the end, voters seem to have preferred Morsi to Shafiq, although not by much.

The sense of frustration and disorientation is understandable. On the surface, the political scene in Egypt today appears Kafkaesque: a legal limbo, a president waiting to know his powers, a disbanded parliament, and not even a constitutional assembly to begin writing what ought to have been the country’s first post-authoritarian constitution. In fact, every vote so far since Mubarak was deposed – the March 2011 referendum, parliament’s two houses, and the presidency – has asked voters to make decisions blind: even the March 2011 referendum on 9 constitutional articles quickly ballooned into a widely-criticised military-issued ‘constitutional declaration’ of 63 articles.

But in a sense, the developments of the past week – dramatic by any standard – have helped clarify this landscape: parliament has been dissolved, the only attempt at transitional justice – the so-called political isolation law – voided, the Presidential race is stacked in favour of the military-backed candidate, military police have been granted powers to arrest civilians, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has revised its own so-called ‘constitutional declaration’ to award itself legislative powers, control over the state budget, and veto power over the future President’s ability to declare war.

None of these developments bode well for democracy, but they do confirm trends which increasingly appear to characterise Egyptian politics: on the one hand, the upper echelons of the armed forces have been driven by the attempt to secure and widen their privileges, on the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood has attempted to simultaneously cut a deal with the military, and marginalise other opposition forces.

Given the junta’s objectives and the Brotherhood’s tactics, Egypt’s choice for president appears to be not so much between the regime and Islamists, but between two sides of the same system of power which Mubarak came to represent.

The Military’s ‘revolutionary’ goals

The defining phase of the Egyptian Uprising might well have been the period between the Army’s entry onto the streets of Egypt on January 28, and the appointment of Mubarak’s new cabinet on January 31. The Army’s presence was initially hailed as a defence against internal security forces, and it is true enough that the army positioned itself between protesters on the one hand, and vying factions within the old regime: Mubarak, his son Gamal and his ‘businessmen’, the intelligence services lead by Omar Suleiman, and the armed forces themselves. But one also got the impression that the Army, impassive as it was in the face of the attacks protesters faced, was engaged in a struggle for power, and that its presence in the streets was intended to send a message not so much to protesters as to competing factions, that its weight could be lent to more than one cause. The government line-up of January 31 seemed to signal a first and thus far fundamental turning point: Suleiman obtained the position of Vice-President – which under Nasser and Sadat had eventually led to the presidency ­– but the armed forces controlled government: Ahmed Shafiq was appointed Prime Minister, and possibly even more importantly Muhammad Tantawi, who in addition to the new position of Deputy Prime Minister, kept his position as Minister of Defence and Military Production, a post held since 1991. That first cabinet was an indication of how power was being reorganised within the old regime: Gamal’s businessmen – and the heir-apparent himself – had been purged, and Tantawi’s allies had positioned themselves just one step behind the limelight of Suleiman’s vice-presidency, but close enough to power.

The struggle between elements of the old regime continued during the first ten days in February, and the final decision to sacrifice Mubarak himself on the February 11 – including as it did the marginalisation of Suleiman ­– suggested the army had prevailed. Egypt’s military junta has ruled the country ever since. Their strategy has looked increasingly like an attempt to purge the regime of internal opponents than anything to do with sympathy or even respect for the demands of Egypt’s would-be revolutionaries. After the recent verdict in the ‘Mubarak trial’, even this purge appears to be limited to a few sacrificial lambs, at best: former Interior Minister Habib Al-Adly and Mubarak’s own sons and closer allies. 

Maintaining control in the short term

In the attempt to prevent control being passed to either the revolutionaries or the Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces have used a range of well-known techniques used by the regime’s under Mubarak.

First, divide the opposition. This was fairly easy, partly because of the lack of cohesion amongst ‘revolutionary forces’, but mostly because the leadership of the country’s largest and best-organised political movement – the Muslim Brotherhood – notoriously favours systematically seeking compromise and coexistence with the regime. In the early 1950s, under Nasser, they briefly held a cabinet position before being persecuted. Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, relaxed the regime’s grip on the Brotherhood to help marginalise Nasserists, only to clamp down on the organisation in the late 1970s. After Sadat’s assassination, Mubarak followed a similar script: a seemingly tolerant overture, followed by severe clampdowns since the 1990s. This did not discourage the Brotherhood’s leadership, which first sought to dissuade its followers from taking part in the January Uprising, and then attempted to both ride the wave of protest and negotiate with the military for a compromise.

Second, play the fear card. This the military junta has done from the very beginning of the post-Mubarak period, invoking the spectres of economic instability and insecurity, blaming them on the revolutionaries in the hope of reaping the support of those who will eventually call for order over ‘chaos’. But the junta also seemed only too happy to do nothing to substantively address either the economy or security. Any other government would, for example, seek to reassure tourists of the country’s stability, and secure its public places. SCAF, however, seemed more interested in routine proclamations of the country’s dire straits and impending chaos. Indeed, the junta seemed at every turn happy with the increasingly polarising rhetoric coming from state-owned or sympathetic media. The most infamous manifestation of this climate was state television’s claim during the so-called ‘Maspero Incident’ that unarmed civilians had attacked the army’s armoured personnel carriers, inviting ‘all honourable citizens’ to take to the streets to defend the army.

Thirdly, keep the opposition guessing, keep enough people hoping – through hints of reform – and most importantly keep institutional options open.

A road to where?

At the moment, the military junta seem to be holding all the cards – and playing them. The military have effectively been consolidating their grip on the nation’s security apparatus, plus key elements of the civilian state apparatus (provincial governors, and heads of provincial, district and local executive councils). In addition, aside from retaining members or loyalists in key cabinet posts (Defence, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Military Production, International Cooperation), they have set upon the body of the state’s institutional design in an attempt to insulate their power. They also control a considerable economic empire.

But questions marks remain about the long-term viability of these tactics.

The junta’s power, for example, is more brittle than it may appear. Firstly, for structural reasons: its leadership is ageing, the gap between lower, mid and higher ranks has sparked sporadic dissent, and unlike the Brotherhood’s, the military’s economic power relies in no small part on exploiting the labour of its own conscripts. Secondly, because none of the measures it has taken so far address the increasing economic tensions which led to a strong labour mobilisation before, during and after the Uprising. These tensions are the direct result of policies from which both the military and the Brotherhood benefit. Thirdly, because the junta’s inability thus far to engineer a smooth transition in which it would protect its interests while remaining in the background has meant it has ended up attempting to occupy virtually every seat of public power. But such a situation is in the long run unsustainable, both because it will become a lightning rod uniting the opposition – something the junta has tried hard to prevent – and because it will expose the military to the same sources of tension and internal competition for patronage which eventually ripped Mubarak’s former ruling party apart.

Finally, so long as the Brotherhood is kept away from power, it will be able to build on its legitimacy as an opponent of official corruption and authoritarianism, as it has for the past several decades. It will also gain legitimacy from its charitable work – from schools to hospitals – which will virtually guarantee that most people will be willing to give it its ‘turn’ in office. That its position once there is far from unassailable became clear through the gains of Salafis during parliamentary elections, and of non-Brotherhood candidates like Abdel Moneim Aboul Futouh and Hamdeen Sabbahi in the first round of Presidential elections. But the military have been unable or unwilling to reach a compromise which allowed the Brotherhood enough space to falter. 


The presidential elections have presented the military with the dilemma underlying its position: it can persevere on its current ‘maximalist’ path of saturating all levers of state power, including by manipulating presidential elections, but if it does so it will not resolve the structural tensions which eventually crippled the regime under Mubarak and led to the January 2011 Uprising. The best way for the military to retain their privileges would be to step back from its high-visibility role. However, the more time passes, the higher the cost of doing this will be, as the military’s iron grip on institutions drives opposition forces towards and not away from each other.

Although it is at first sight tempting, the Presidential run-off is not primarily a contest between the Brotherhood and the Military, much less a choice between democracy and authoritarianism: more importantly, it is a test of what the junta is willing and capable of doing to avoid becoming increasingly isolated. 

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