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    Middle East
     Jun 30, 2012


Egypt's military bides its time
By Victor Kotsev

Amid intensive bargaining between the Muslim Brotherhood and the army in Egypt - covering anything from where the president will be sworn-in to how the country will be run and what the new constitution will look like - it looks as though, for a moment, the two bitter rivals who shape the Egyptian political scene are seriously set on working together.

The new Egyptian president, Mohammed Morsi, is due to assume office on Saturday with much fanfare. He will be the fifth Egyptian president in the millennia-long history of the country, and the first-ever democratically elected one.

Beneath the surface, however, both sides are digging in for a long

 

battle, which in the future will likely be felt throughout the region.

Morsi resigned as the leader of the Brotherhood after his victory, and pledged to appoint a Christian Copt and a woman as vice-presidents. In a nod to Israel (and to the United States and other concerned allies) he also promised to uphold all of Egypt's prior international commitments.

His apparent pragmatic turn is warranted, in part, by the narrow margin of his victory (less than 3.5% of the vote) over his opponent Ahmed Shafiq. This result suggests that the upcoming rerun of the parliamentary election-expected to be held once the new constitution is drafted-will be similarly contested, and the Brotherhood will not enjoy an overwhelming popular mandate. If it is to spearhead a constructive transition, as it has pledged to do, it will need as broad a coalition as possible.

In a reminder that democracy still has a limited value in Egypt, and more turmoil is likely in store, persistent rumors claim that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) only agreed to honor the results of the election once Morsi and the Brotherhood made concessions on a vague power-sharing deal. Still, for now the rivalry that dates back over half a century seems to have been swept under the rug, and a wave of cautious optimism has taken hold, both in Egypt and abroad.

"We've heard some very positive statements thus far," United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly said on Wednesday, amid unconfirmed speculation that she might be the first top official of the American administration to visit the new president in Cairo this weekend. "But we have to wait and judge by what is actually done," she added.

Whatever the precise parameters of the deal-in-progress, for the foreseeable future the SCAF will continue to hold a lot of power. The list includes major influence over the panel that will draft the constitution, control over the military (the chairman of the SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, will likely remain both the commander-in-chief and the defense minister, a fellow general told Reuters on Wednesday), and, at least until a new parliament is elected, legislative powers as well. The army's influence is deeply entrenched in all sectors of society, including the judiciary branch and the economy.

However, the military is not omnipotent, either, as a court decision earlier this week, which overturned its prerogative to arrest civilians, demonstrated. [1] The SCAF is also forced to take popular opinion (often referred to metaphorically as "the street") into account, and is consequently willing to share political power.

In addition, a darker motive appears to be behind the generals' reticent power-sharing motions. The Egyptian transition to democracy promises to be long and difficult, not least economically (the economy is headed for a crash, many experts agree), and if the opposition can be co-opted, it can be scapegoated as well. Observing the evolution of the recent color revolutions in Eastern Europe, for example, the army must surely have calculated that once the Brotherhood fails to deliver, the public sentiment is likely to turn back to the generals.

In the months and years to come, the generals will likely use their pervasive influence in order to smear the Brotherhood and to sow discord between it and the rest of the opposition, in a fresh iteration of the old Roman maximum "divide and rule." According to the private American intelligence-analysis organization Stratfor, they would follow a model similar to the one used by Pakistan's army.

Stratfor writes,
While Pakistan has a far more vibrant democratic culture than Egypt, Islamabad's military has been able to make use of the weakness and incoherence of civilian institutions - the presidency, the parliament and the judiciary - to rein in rival political forces. Using the state's intelligence services, the army also has pitted different parties against one another. The military's strength in the government has waned somewhat in recent years, but the army is still able to contain civilians.

Already the SCAF has exhibited this kind of behavior, as evidenced by its dissolution of parliament, its pitting Islamists against secularists and its exploiting divisions among rival Islamists. Consequently, the [Muslim Brotherhood] will improve its relations with political competitors, especially its anti-Islamist rivals, to deny the SCAF the leverage it currently has - hence Morsi's appointing a Copt and a woman as his vice presidents.
The Brotherhood, in turn, may seek to transfer some of the responsibility to others. Most analysts predict that it will try counteract the influence of the military by using Turkey's Islamists as a model. Known for its patient and methodical approach toward power, the Brotherhood will likely seek to expand slowly, and will prioritize areas such as education, social services, and justice. It may be willing to compromise on ministries that are normally considered of higher value, such as defense, finance, and foreign affairs.

In the long run, the outcome of the political battle is uncertain. Both opponents have considerable vulnerabilities. The Muslim Brotherhood faces challenges from radical Islamists, on the one hand, and from a diverse group of Christians, other minorities, and the pro-democracy movement, on the other. The army, too, faces rifts, such as a generational divide between the ruling generals (all of venerable age) and younger officers who seek to gain access to the wealth and power.

Both models - the Pakistani and the Turkish ones - apply only in a limited way to Egypt, and it is possible that others will emerge in the future.

For now, while a truce is in place and strong pledges are made that the next Egyptian government will include representatives from all sectors of society, Egyptians can breathe a sigh of relief. So can most of Egypt's neighbors - for what happens in the most populous Arab country is certain to reverberate, sooner or later, throughout the entire region.

Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, each have their own (though related) reasons to worry about the Muslim Brotherhood's ascent to power. While congratulatory messages poured in on Morsi from all sides, Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood, was the most sincere in its joy. The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, being weak and heavily dependent on Egypt (not least in its rivalry with Hamas), appears to be the biggest loser.

Jordan and Israel can afford to be less concerned. Jordan's King Abdullah II is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, which carries a good deal of clout with Islamists. The more urgent tension in his country is between ethnic Palestinians and Jordanians of East Bank descent; while the balance of power among the Palestinians could have an impact on Jordan down the road, this influence would mostly be indirect and there would be time for counter-measures.

Israel's position is best summed up by a statement by an Israeli security official reported by the local daily Ha'aretz. According to the article, "The official said the trend revealed by the victory of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate was not a positive trend for Israel. But neither is it 'an Egyptian plague.'"

Another part of the anonymous senior official's statements stands out: "The potential is there for a strengthening of ties between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, and that's certainly an opportunity for Israel If they want to get their goods from the port of Alexandria and not from Ashdod, let them do so." [2]

Some right-wing Israeli circles have long advocated the so-called "Jordanian option" for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely the absorption of the West Bank territories into Jordan. This would go hand-in-hand with an "Egyptian option," according to which Egypt would take control of the Gaza Strip. This was, more or less, the status quo prior to the 1967 war.

While these ideas have so far remained mostly on the fringes of the Israeli political discourse, the continued impasse in the diplomatic process with the Palestinians has breathed new energy into them over the last few years. The controversial Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, publicly suggested a couple of years ago that Israel absolve itself of responsibility for Gaza, [3] and while that idea died out, a new version of it may well emerge.

It is important to watch how the relations between Egypt and Gaza evolve in the future. If it ends up being up to the Muslim Brotherhood to decide, it will find it difficult to resist opening the border crossing at Rafah. From that point on, Gaza, which is not self-sufficient economically, would grow increasingly dependent on Egypt, and Israel would be able to cut all links down the road.

While it is hardly possible to predict the precise regional implications of the Egyptian transition - just as the outcome of the internal power struggle is uncertain - countless intriguing possibilities that are entirely speculative but worth considering exist.

One has to wonder, for example, how and if the civil war in Syria will be affected by the political rise of the Muslim Brotherhood on the Nile. Egypt ostensibly has plenty of internal problems right now to get engaged abroad; however, if the bloodshed in Syria continues and Turkey gets involved, perhaps with broad Arab League support (as one scenario has it), Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood would find it hard to stand completely on the sidelines. In fact, with some financial aid (why not from the Gulf), the generals and the Brotherhood could even find a common cause in their new partnership; and what better for the Street than some bread and spectacles, particularly with a tag of justice attached.

Much of what happens in Egypt continues to be an enigma. With the inauguration of Mohammed Morsi as president, the country will enter a new phase, at least symbolically. How exactly the symbolism will translate into practice is still hard to say, but the transition process is guaranteed to be intense, both for Egypt and the entire region, and to offer many surprises.

Notes:
1. Egypt court rejects army powers to arrest civilians, Reuters, June 26, 2012.
2. Israeli official: Egypt likely to preserve peace treaty with Israel, Ha'aretz, June 27, 2012.
3. Is Avigdor Lieberman onto something in Gaza?, Foreign Policy, July 29, 2010.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)





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