News Analysis: Egypt's lingering contradictions veer towards open conflicts

Mostafa Ali, Saturday 9 Jun 2012

Confrontation between the ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood is coming to a head amid protests against the presidential candidacy of old regime stalwart Ahmed Shafiq and as the constitution remains unwritten

Shafiq, Morsi and Tantawi
Shafiq, Morsi and Tantawi

There have been no opinion polls predicting if either Ahmed Shafiq or Mohamed Morsi will win the run-off vote 16-17 June since the two contenders came out on top in the first round of Egypt's presidential elections 24 May.

However, judging by the heated debate the issue has elicited in the last two weeks, the country has become polarised in a manner not seen since the clash between Islamists and secular forces in the religiously charged referendum on military-authored constitutional amendments in March 2011.

Minutes after the final results of the first round were announced 28 May, placing Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, and Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, first and second the public fell into a whirlwind of voter and political party realignment.

On one hand, the powerful Salafist Nour Party, which formally endorsed moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh against Morsi in the first round, wasted no time in announcing that they would back Morsi in the run-offs.

Anti-Islamist parties such as the leftist Tagammu and the liberal Wafd, though stopping short of endorsing either finalist, hastily drafted  a document that demands both candidates commit to a civil state system of government, a pledge that Shafiq could live with but Morsi found hard to swallow.

Other liberal figures with anti-Brotherhood stances, such as the well known politician Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the former head of the Democratic Front Party, skipped over formalities of asking for guarantees on a civil state from the two finalists and unconditionally endorsed Shafiq.

Meanwhile, many of the supporters of presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi who came in third (as well as Abul-Fotouh who finished fourth) find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place.

This critical group of voters (Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh together make eight million votes), who overwhelmingly supported the January 25 Revolution, find it near impossible to stomach the idea of the return to power of a leading Mubarak regime figure like Shafiq. Simultaneously, this camp, which appears to prefer a civil state-based government, finds the prospects of a hard-line Muslim Brotherhood president, co-ruling the country with an Islamist led-parliament, an outcome to fear.

As a nasty war of words expectedly broke out between the Shafiq and Morsi camps following the results of the first round, Sabbahi and Abul-Fotouh declined to commit to voting for the Brotherhood candidate against the representative of the old order. Instead they started discussions on how to form a grassroots movement to continue the revolution (or the "third option" as they called it), thus leaving their voter base in limbo.

Pro-revolution forces, shocked over Shafiq's second place finish in the polls, but disunited on whether to vote for Morsi to stop Shafiq in the run-offs, or whether to vote at all, launched a last minute campaign to pressure the courts to implement the law the Islamist-led parliament issued in April to disqualify the former prime minister and other former regime figures from political office. This arguably could be a time-buying tactic by Sabbahi and company to avert total inaction in the face of the rise of Shafiq while, simultaneously, postponing a decision on what to do with Morsi.

However, a rally that took place on 1 June to push Shafiq out of the race could not attract more than several thousand demonstrators in Tahrir, despite formal commitments from the Brotherhood to send members to bolster the turnout.

At this juncture, it seemed that the ruling military council's roadmap to a civilian handover on 30 June was on track.

However, the legally untenable cocktail of innocent and guilty verdicts that the Cairo criminal court issued on the morning of 2 June in the year-long trial of Hosni Mubarak sent pro-revolution sectors of the populace back to Tahrir and iconic squares other cities with a gusto. The ousted president and his minister of interior, Habib El-Adly, were given life sentences for their role in the murder of protesters, but six top police chiefs were acquitted and Mubarak and his sons were cleared of all wrongdoing in financial corruption cases.

The size of the demonstrations in provincial cities such as Damietta, and the number of cities which turned out large numbers to protests for the first time, such as Qena in Upper Egypt, reflected that pro-revolution forces were not simply expressing anger over the verdicts but, perhaps, making last ditch efforts to stop what seemed like an unstoppable rise of counter-revolutionary forces epitomised in the ascendancy of Ahmed Shafiq.

Three major conflicts that have been raging between various sets of political forces, and have defined the contours of the political map since Mubarak's ouster, reached explosive levels in the last 10 days.

These major conflicts are the battle between the ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood over who will author the constitution; the conflict between liberal forces and Islamists over the civil-religious balance in the state; and finally the struggle between non-religious pro-revolution forces and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) over the duration of the generals' tenure on top of the political scene.

Moreover, three new developments on the scene have complicated the picture and accentuated the velocity of the head-on confrontations now taking place: the recent decline in the popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood since January which makes it more vulnerable to pressures from both friends and foes; the apparent return of the National Democratic Party (NDP) apparatus as a player on the scene via the candidacy of Shafiq; and the coalescence of sizeable revolutionary forces around Hamdeen Sabbahi's candidacy as an alternative to both the Brotherhood and the old order.

In recent months, SCAF has used the relative decline of the Brotherhood's support in the public since it assumed the mantle of parliament in January to isolate the Brotherhood and weaken its ability to challenge the army generals.

Meanwhile, whole sections of liberal forces, which detest what they perceive as the Brotherhood's attempts to monopolise the writing of the constitution, have in recent weeks lined up behind SCAF in its conflict with the Brotherhood.

Sabbahi forces have managed to pull anti-NDP people who reject the Brotherhood alternative behind their "third way" project.

In this context, SCAF has decided to mount an all out attack on the beleaguered Brotherhood to reign in the 84-year-old powerful group, in order to enforce its agenda.

As the Brotherhood faces attacks by Shafiq, who badgered them as "power hungry," and as Sabbahi besieges Morsi with demands of a presidential council to run the country after SCAF leaves, as an implicit condition for calling for a vote for Morsi against Shafiq, SCAF moved in to issue an ultimatum Tuesday to the Brotherhood to accept a Constituent Assembly without a clear Brotherhood majority.

Two major issues have remained hotly contested all week as SCAF waits to assess how far they might be able to push the Brotherhood to concede: the future of the Islamist led-parliament, and the prospects for proceeding with the presidential elections run-offs on16 June.

Advisory reports submitted from the State Commissioners Authority to the Supreme Constitutional Court on the constitutionality of the procedures adopted by the government in parliamentary and presidential elections (disadvantages to independents in the parliamentary elections law and failure of the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission to implement the Disenfranchisement Law on Ahmed Shafiq) promise to lead to the dissolution of parliament or/and repeating presidential elections anew.

The Brotherhood, under tremendous pressure to win the presidency and to save its parliament (hoping to strengthen its position in its long-term conflicts with SCAF) had shown readiness to make concessions to the generals on the issue of the Constituent Assembly to lower the temperature on the battlefield, thus averting any premature all-out war scenario that it might not be ready to face at this stage.

The Brotherhood might be allowed by its adversaries to stay strong in parliament for the time being; thus bigger confrontations between the group and SCAF could be deferred to the not-too-distant future.

Meanwhile, street protests by a rejuvenated pro-revolution constituency, pressures from the Hamdeen camp, as well as threats from liberal forces to line up with SCAF against the Brotherhood could continue to pressure Egypt's largest Islamist political power to shift and adjust course, though in as yet undetermined directions.

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