Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and ruling military: Deal or no deal?

Sherif Tarek , Wednesday 28 Sep 2011

As the apparent honeymoon between the ruling SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood looks to be coming to an end, Ahram Online explores the big questions: was there a deal, and has it gone sour?

Muslim brotherhood
File photo: Second from left Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, Muslim Brotherhood guidance bureau member, and centre Egyptian Secretary General of the organisation Mahmoud Hussein. Next to him is president of Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Morsi, and party vice-president Essam El-Errian. (Photo: AP)

Since March of this year, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) appeared to have had a behind-the-scenes deal, agreement or accommodation, from which both sides would benefit. That, at least, has been the conclusion drawn by many in the democratic/secular camp in the country’s post-revolutionary political space.

Some argue that a SCAF/MB agreement is still in place, while others argue that whatever deal they might have had has been called off lately, due to sharp disagreements between the two. Leading Brotherhood figures, however, vehemently deny ever having had an agreement with SCAF.

“There has never been a deal between us and SCAF,” Mohamed Saad El-Katatni, vice-president of the Freedom and Justice Party, told Tahrir TV. “The party and the group [Muslim Brotherhood] make their political decisions pursuant to internal discussions and conventions.”

Those who accuse the Brotherhood of having struck a deal with SCAF point to the group’s recurrent withdrawal, even condemnation of protest actions aimed at achieving the Egyptian revolution’s basic objectives in democracy and social justice. Concerned solely with winning the lion’s share of political power in the country after the popular uprising, Brotherhood critics charge the group is working towards a power-sharing deal with the military.

Towards this objective, the Brotherhood’s critics argue, the group has committed itself to help the military rulers control public opinion and deter recurring post-revolution nationwide demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins by neither endorsing nor taking part in any of them, and on occasion condemning such actions outright.

According to Mohamed Salah, an expert on Islamist movements and head of Al-Hayat newspaper’s office in Egypt, “There is no evidence whatsoever that this so-called agreement does exist.” But this does not mean there was no deal. “Personally, I don’t think there’s been a comprehensive deal, but I believe the Brotherhood instigated a sort of understanding with SCAF. They are keen not to slip into a confrontation with the army, like back in 1954, when they bore the brunt of the military’s anger,” he added.

In 1954, an initial honeymoon between Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s Revolution Command Council and the Muslim Brotherhood ended in a wide-scale clampdown on the group, which was made illegal. A large number of Brotherhood leaders were jailed, some even faced the death penalty, after being accused of involvement in an attempt to assassinate then president Abdel-Nasser.

Post-revolution honeymoon

For some time after the January 25 Revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF appeared to be on the same page.

For the first time in their history, the Brotherhood got to found their own political party, the Freedom and Justice (El-Horreya we El-Adala) Party, without any difficulties, despite speculation that they would face legal obstacles, given that the law prohibits religion-based parties. The Freedom and Justice Party got the all-clear after being presented by its leaders as a democratic party committed to a modern civic state, women’s rights, social equality and national unity.

There were many indications as well that the Brotherhood had given a number of crucial reassurances to SCAF. During the first couple of months after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, Brotherhood leaders made statements to the effect that the group would not call for the abolition of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, which had been a long term MB position. They also pledged that they would not put up a candidate for the presidency, and initially claimed would contest only 25 per cent of parliamentary seats. The latter pledge was later reneged upon, with different brotherhood leaders saying the group would contest anything from 30 to over 50 per cent of parliamentary seats.

For its part, SCAF formed a committee to amend the constitution, which was chaired by an Islamist figure and included two Muslim Brotherhood members, making the group the only political force in the country represented on the constitutional committee. They initially scheduled parliamentary elections for June 2011, a shockingly early date that seemed to guarantee the powerful Islamic group an unprecedented advantage in the ballot.

Almost all other political groups demanded that Egypt’s constitution should be drafted first, or at least that elections should be delayed until all parties are ready to compete, SCAF has stuck to what many criticised as backwards road-map according to which parliamentary elections would be held first and as soon as possible, followed by drawing a new constitution, which would be followed by presidential elections.

Faced with strong opposition and insurmountable logistical complications, SCAF later announced that elections would be held in September, which was later postponed again to November.

As things went the way they want, the Muslim Brotherhood turned their backs at their revolution allies and were consistently backing SCAF’s policies, attacking their erstwhile fellow revolutionaries who were calling for one mass protest after another to ensure the fulfillment of the revolution’s demands.

They insisted, nevertheless, that pleasing SCAF was far from being their policy.

“It happened many times that our political stand coincidently went in the same direction of the military council’s desires, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have a deal with them … We don’t care whether the military council is satisfied with our decisions or not,” El-Katatni stated.

The Brotherhood even remained tight-lipped on the contentious military trials for civilians, one of the most controversial issues, which was met with widespread outrage, and triggered severe criticism not only of SCAF, but also of the Brotherhood, which was accused of betraying the revolution’s objectives of democracy and human rights.

“I condemn the Muslim Brotherhood’s decision not to participate in the 9 September million-man march [where protesters were primarily demanding the end of military trials],” Mohamed El-Ashkar, general coordinator of Kefaya Movement, was quoted as saying. “The Muslim Brotherhood have turned the revolution from a patriotic responsibility into an opportunity to seize bounty.”

However, relations between the Brotherhood and SCAF began to sour, mainly due to SCAF’s declared intention of issuing a new Constitutional Declaration, which would set down a number of “super constitutional principles”, including guaranteeing the “civic”, i.e. non-religious, character of the Egyptian state. 

It was only then that the Brotherhood came out in condemnation of military trials for civilians, with the group’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie issuing several statements to this effect. Badie and other leading Brotherhood figure also deplored the re-activation of the draconian emergency law, but declined to join protest demonstrations calling for its annulment.

The parliamentary elections debate

Talks over possible postponement of parliamentary elections were the first to clearly mark the end of the MB-SCAF honeymoon, even though the Islamist group remained resolute in their support for the military council over the past months.

Parliamentary elections are supposed to take place in November of this year. Theoretically, early elections provide the Muslim Brotherhood with a golden opportunity to win a substantial number of seats in the new parliament.

The Brotherhood, as such, did not cite this obvious advantage as a reason for their apparent falling out with SCAF. Instead, they pointed out that a delay of elections past this year would mean SCAF would remain in power for a longer while, a scenario that the Brotherhood said they flatly refuse as it “goes against the will of the people”.

“In the Brotherhood, we were raised on the notion of martyrdom and we are more than happy to offer new martyrs and begin new protests and strikes in Tahrir Square if the will of the people is denied [by putting off the parliamentary elections],” said Hassan El-Brence, a leading member of the group whose unusually strong-worded statement raised many questions over the Muslim Brotherhood’s relationship with SCAF.

El-Brence’s controversial statements were widely seen as a threat against SCAF delaying elections that caused their relationship to take a turn for the worse.

“I cannot confirm that a Muslim Brotherhood deal with SCAF did exist,” Amr Hashem Rabie, an expert at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, told Ahram Online.

“But if there had ever been one, the Muslim Brotherhood must’ve backed out of it already, thanks to disputes on the parliamentary elections, the constitution and the testimony [of Field Marshal and de-facto ruler Hussein Tantawi] in the trial of [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak [which is widely believed to be in favour of the toppled commander-in-chief].”  

All the same, Al-Hayat’s Salah reckons that El-Brence’s aggressive tone was actually an attempt to refute allegations that the Brotherhood has a deal with SCAF. “The military council never said it has an intention of postponing the elections; they were replying to something that wasn’t really said,” he notes.

“When they state that the army cannot remain in power longer than planned, or the parliamentary elections mustn’t be delayed, they are just trying to highlight a fake disagreement to prove there is no deal between them and SCAF, that’s the main purpose … And they have no fear over their relations with SCAF reaction because the military never said anything about postponing the elections in the first place.”

Yet, in what was regarded as a second attack on the military council, the Brotherhood’s El-Katatny played down SCAF’s meeting with various political parties and movements to discuss the newly-issued electoral law, which combines individual candidacy and electoral lists on a 50-50 basis. Everyone from the political spectrum received it with near unanimous rejection.

El-Katatny criticised SCAF for “ignoring reservations presented by political parties and following the meeting with a vague statement that it would consider the suggestions and nothing more”. He also branded the dialogue as “useless, disappointing and a waste of time”.

Possible constitution rift

While the Islamist group reversed their attitude towards SCAF all of a sudden, a possibly more serious bone of contention between the Brotherhood and the ruling military council is SCAF’s intent to issue yet another constitutional declaration, which would include a number of basic principles upon which a future constitution should be based.

“There have been frequent and continuing endeavors [to draw up the constitution in a way that contradict what the referendum’s results stipulate],” a Brotherhood statement read. “First, they tried to form a new constitution, then came up with a constitution project, the constitution-before-the-elections debate. They also introduced constitutional principles, then the supra constitutional principles and then the principles of the modern Egyptian state. All of this is against the free will of Egyptians.”

SCAF plans to introduce fundamental guidelines and criteria for the next parliament to use in picking the members of the 100-person committee to be charged with drawing up a permanent constitution. Many believe that SCAF resorted to this plan out of fear that an Islamist-dominated parliament would ensure that the Egyptian constitution backs a religious state rather than a civil one.

“I think the Muslim Brotherhood do not want to escalate tensions with SCAF … but the debate on the constitution has definitely widened the gap between both parties,” Rabie commented.

Originally, the Muslim Brotherhood had committed itself to the civil non-religious state, in line with the consensual position adopted by the January 25 Revolution and most of its political players. But later, and as the Salafists and Al-Gamaa Al-Islameya made their presence felt on the political scene, the Brotherhood leadership seemed to shift its position towards a religious state and the application of Sharia (Islamic law).

Presidency conflict seems far-fetched

SCAF would never allow a Brotherhood president, some experts say, but such a conflict does not seem to be far-fetched.

The Muslim Brotherhood reiterated that they would not run for the presidency in the upcoming presidential elections. The group even expelled a long-standing leading member, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for defying the group’s decision by announcing his intent to seek the presidency.

For his part, Salah said: “The Brotherhood’s intention of not running for the presidency is genuine; they are fully aware that the current, local and regional circumstances wouldn’t allow them to assume power.” He continued “They are incapable of Islamising the community; people would turn against them like what happened to Hassan EL-Turabi in Sudan [in the 1990s].”

“In all cases, there won’t be any real clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF; neither side want this. Sometimes the media just blow things out of proportion but the Brotherhood and SCAF locking horn with each other is too unlikely,” Saleh elaborated.

The announcement by prominent Islamist writer Selim El-Awwa that he would be running for president has, however, raised suspicions that the Brotherhood might in fact back an Islamist candidate from behind the scenes. According to some critics, the Brotherhood leadership could announce that it is allowing its membership and supporters to vote “their conscience”, while knowing full well that they would vote for an Islamist candidate, who has strong ties with the group, but is not a member.

The group is yet to make an official statement on the presidential elections, which are yet to be scheduled.

Short link: