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Who’s afraid of the Brotherhood?

Last week’s looming confrontation between Egypt’s ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been averted, for now

Mona Anis , Thursday 15 Dec 2011
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The intensity of the past few days separating the announcement of the results of the first round of Egypt’s parliamentary elections and the beginning of the second round yesterday have been such that every new day has carried with it developments that have seemed to bring ever closer the prospect of an open clash between the newly elected Islamist members of parliament and the country’s de facto rulers, the Supreme Military Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

As the results of the first round of the elections were announced on Wednesday evening, confirming the commanding lead of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, with over 40 per cent of the vote, a member of the SCAF, Major-General Moukhtar El-Mulla, gave a rare interview to representatives of the foreign media – all of them from the US, aside from British newspaper The Guardian's Egypt correspondant – in which he claimed that the new parliament would “certainly not represent all sectors of society.”

“The next parliament will not represent all the Egyptian people. But the constitution will affect all the citizens of Egypt. We are at the first stage of democracy. Before too long, the parliament will be able to do whatever it likes. But for the moment, and in an unstable situation like the present one, it does not represent all the Egyptian people,” El-Mulla said. 

As a result, he said, the new parliament would not have sole charge of selecting the 100-member committee tasked with writing the country's new constitution, as was stipulated in the March referendum. To ensure that all sectors of society were represented on the committee drafting the new constitution, El-Mulla said that the new parliament would be aided in its task by both the interim government, sworn in on the same day that El-Mulla was speaking to the foreign press, and a new council to be created by the SCAF, which would act as an advisory body.

It seems that the Muslim Brotherhood had initially agreed to participate in this advisory council when the idea was first raised, unaware of what its mandate would be. As soon as El-Mulla disclosed the SCAF's plans for the council, the Brotherhood announced that it was withdrawing from it, and it threatened to mobilise its supporters against what it saw as the latest of many encroachments on the popular will. Earlier, the Brotherhood had demanded that the new parliament should be able to proceed to a vote of no confidence in the government should it wish to do so, something which El-Mulla told the foreign journalists would be unacceptable. Instead, he said, the SCAF would remain in full control of the executive branch until a new president was elected by the end of June next year.

The stage was thus set for a fresh confrontation between the ruling SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood, and this seemed to be looming on Thursday and Friday last week. For its part, the SCAF has once again been trying to win over those sectors of society most concerned by the rise of groups associated with Political Islam, these having gained two-thirds of the vote in the first round of the elections, giving them a very significant role in the drafting of the country’s new constitution. The SCAF would like those groups concerned at this development to support it by giving their consent to the army’s entrenching itself above the legislative branch, thereby guaranteeing that the military budget will be kept away from parliamentary scrutiny. The latter is something that the ruling military council has been insisting on since before the elections took place.

This represents the third, if not the fourth, round in what could be termed the battle of supra-constitutional principles. Three previous committees have been formed with the aim of agreeing on the guidelines to be observed by the constituent assembly that will be tasked with drafting the country's new constitution. Each of these committees has been vehemently opposed by the Brotherhood and the other Islamist groups. Ten days before the beginning of the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood mobilised hundreds of thousands of its supporters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a show of force meant to express its opposition to a document prepared by the then deputy prime minister Ali El-Selmy.

By inviting its supporters to demonstrate in Tahrir Square, the nerve centre of activism in the country, a spark was ignited. Though Brotherhood members had received instructions to pull out of the Square by the end of the day and to engage in electioneering over the few remaining days, a small group nonetheless insisted on re-occupying Tahrir Square. The following day, as the army tried to disperse this group by force, the situation developed into a full-scale confrontation that lasted for a week and left 45 people dead and hundreds of others injured. Further casualties of the clashes were the government of former prime minister Essam Sharaf and the document drafted by his deputy, El-Selmy.

The young activists in Tahrir Square wanted the SCAF to hand over power to a civilian body before the elections, while the Brotherhood wanted the elections to take place as scheduled. Acting as if it had fallen between a rock and a hard place, the SCAF exerted every effort to make sure that the elections would proceed in as orderly a way as possible, and thus far it has succeeded in this task. A new cabinet was sworn in last week, despite opposition from young activists occupying the street in front of the cabinet building in a bid to deny the prime minister access to his office. For the time being, the prime minister seems not to have been perturbed, and he has taken up office in one of the ministries far from the downtown area.

It is the confrontation with the Brotherhood that most worries the SCAF, and while the military rulers and the Brotherhood seemed set on a collision course last week as a result of El-Mulla's statements to the foreign media, on Saturday another leading member of the ruling council, Major-General Mamdouh Chahine, told Egyptian state TV that the parliament would be the sole authority in charge of selecting members of the constituent assembly tasked with writing the new constitution. His statement was given prominence on the front pages of all the Sunday papers, together with statements from other sources close to the SCAF claiming that El-Mulla's original statements had been misunderstood and that the SCAF's advisory council would not interfere in the process of drafting the new constitution.

On the same day that the SCAF retracted the statements that had so angered the Brotherhood, senator John Kerry, chair of the US Senate foreign relations committee, accompanied by US ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, made separate visits to Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, president of the SCAF, Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri, and the headquarters of the Brotherhood, where they had a meeting with three top Brotherhood officials.

Only time will tell whether this meeting played any role in averting the clash between the ruling SCAF and the Brotherhood that at one point seemed to be imminent. For the time being, the Brotherhood is busy fighting the second round of the parliamentary elections, and it is unlikely to be looking for any immediate confrontation that might disrupt them.

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