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The Egyptian ruling class: A band of hostile Brethren?

The Brotherhood and the generals will reach more 'understandings' and 'deals' but disparate political goals will send them back to the field of battle one against the another, time and again

Mostafa Ali , Monday 9 Jul 2012

Over the course of the last year and a half, various contending political forces at the top of the Egyptian scene more than once reached agreements amongst themselves. They buried their outstanding differences to open the door to a united front amongst both those who rule the country and those who aspire to secure a seat at the table.

The two most famous "agreements" or "understandings" of the post-January 25 uprising involved arrangements between the ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.

First, the Islamists blessed the constitutional declaration issued by the generals, guaranteeing that they would mobilise the masses to  vote for it on 30 March, 2011. This agreement served the interests of both sides by simultaneously apparently allowing the Islamists to secure a majority in parliamentary elections while bestowing legitimacy on the right of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to issue constitutional guidelines and decrees.

More recently, the ruling SCAF decided – under tremendous popular pressure - to live (at least for now) with the results of the presidential elections which sent Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood to become the executive head of the state, instead of the military-friendly ex-aviation chief, Ahmed Shafiq.

Morsi and the Brotherhood, in turn, seemed - on the surface - to acquiesce to the SCAF’s 17 June constitutional addendum, which put itself above all in any future political system in Egypt.

For months after the 2011 "deal" was concluded and the Brotherhood were allowed to take a majority of parliament seats, some opponents of both SCAF and the Brotherhood believed that the generals-Brotherhood mutual understanding was there to stay for good. And they had good reasons to think so.

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood broke rank with all other revolutionary forces and took a position against strikes, demonstrations and sit-ins that threatened to disrupt the SCAF’s control over the transition period and its roadmap to democracy.

As if to confirm all predictions that the deal between the Brotherhood and the generals is durable – if not eternal – the Brotherhood played an active role for months in cementing SCAF control over the transition by slandering the image of all revolutionaries, demonstrators and strikers. They gave the generals ideological cover to squash dissent for a protracted period of months.

The Brotherhood – and their Salafist allies – seemed to fulfil their part of the deal. How? By remaining silent during the SCAF’s violent dispersal of the July 2011 sit-in in Tahrir, then more proactively supporting the SCAF’s version of events during the infamous crushing of peaceful Coptic protesters at Maspero in October, and, finally, by abandoning and more or less denouncing protesters in Mohamed Mahmoud Street in late fall of that year.

During those honeymoon months between the Brotherhood and the generals, believers that the generals-Brotherhood deal would last pointed to the pharaoh-like speeches of the Brotherhood’s speaker of parliament, Saad El-Katatni. The speaker repeatedly pronounced that the Islamist-dominated People's Assembly (parliament) – not Tahrir  – is the holder of true legitimacy in the country and Tahrir. These statements were evidence to many that the Brotherhood and the generals had exchanged unbreakable Catholic marriage vows; "until death do us part."

From the vantage point of those who assumed that the "deal" overcame the vast and critical differences in interests and outlook between the Brotherhood and the generals, the revolution – and for that matter, history – had come to an end.

According to one-sided analysts: from now on, the Brotherhood would help the generals redecorate the house of Mubarak with Quranic verses.

Those analysts could not see that the generals will never fully trust the Brotherhood, and the Brotherhood will never settle for tokenistic positions in state management under the helm of the generals.

Moreover, these analysts could not comprehend that the generals-Brotherhood disputes spell good news for those who oppose both military rule and an Islamist dictatorship and want to see the revolution grow and mature as it creates the space for activists to build an alternative for both.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the analysts erroneously believed that the Brotherhood have become equal partners in power simply because the SCAF allowed Katatni to do some inconsequential grandstanding in parliament.

When the constitutional court and the SCAF attempted to dissolve parliament, nullifying the results of the people’s vote with the stroke of a pen, it should have become starkly obvious to all that the SCAF is firmly in control and the Brotherhood were not the equal partners in power with the SCAF many believed them to be.

Unfortunately, at a critical moment when democracy – as deformed as it is under the current circumstances – needed to be defended, those who stuck to the theory that equates the dangers to democracy and the future of the revolution stemming from the Brotherhood and the generals failed to take to the streets. They let the SCAF dissolve the People’s Assembly, forfeiting their defence of both the people’s will – as much as one believes the people voted for a non-revolutionary group in the form of the Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections – and, ultimately, to keep the revolution alive.

Very few non-Brotherhood forces – and actually anti-Brotherhood for the most part – got it right and rallied for democracy by opposing the dissolution of the People’s Assembly, the SCAF’s undemocratic constitutional addendum and the procrastination by the electoral commission in declaring Morsi as the victor of the presidential elections.

However, others, and many of them are otherwise good democrats and revolutionaries, unfortunately, got it wrong and declared "a plague on both of their houses."

The Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh, for example, got it right and stood by democracy when it mattered most. Unfortunately, the leftist, Hamdeen Sabbahi, opted to travel to Mecca to perform omra (Islamic lesser pilgrimage) and skipped the whole fight.

At the start of the second deal between the Brotherhood and the generals, some deal theorists, once again, took clues to imagine that the Brotherhood and the generals have just made up - and this time for good. They read this permanence in broadcasted handshakes between newly elected president Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Morsi, and Field Marshal Tantawi - as well as Morsi’s conceding to take the oath of office not before parliament, but before the High Court - as the SCAF mandated in its unilateral, 11th hour addendum to the constitution.

A slew of articles and analysis tried to answer important questions, such as how the deal was reached, who brokered the deal, the details of the deal, etc. However, very few pundits, political scientists, journalists or democracy proponents, drawing on the fresh experience of watching the first deal disintegrate into vapour, bothered to examine the possibility that underlying resolved tensions and serious disagreements between the Brotherhood and the SCAF could lead to a new break up.

This time, long before the ink had dried on the "deal" between the Brotherhood and the generals, the embattled couple stormed into the church and yelled at the Catholic priest who wedded them off for doing so in the first place!

The president, barely eight days into office, decided to "act presidential" and told the SCAF they cannot arbitrarily interpret court rulings and disband the Islamist-led parliament. The SCAF, of course, will respond and take action. Then a new chapter in the fight between the sheikhs and the generals will unfold.

Most likely, a new compromise between the Brotherhood and the SCAF might be penned (with invisible ink, of course), thus helping both sides postpone final showdowns. But just because a new deal could be reached, the larger war won’t be precluded.

The SCAF holds vast political, economic and military power, and is the de facto ruler of the country. The Brotherhood has a mass base, which they single-mindedly intend to use to rule.

The generals are not used to taking orders from anyone and won't change their minds any time soon.

The sheikhs are used to preaching from above and will not accept to be anyone’s pupil.

Keeping these things in mind, at certain critical moments in the fight for democracy, one must be ready to both stand unapologetically on the side of respecting the right of the people to choose, in opposition to military rule while at the same time maintaining an independent position from those who simply think they can use the masses as a lever to get to power.

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