Army May Be Real Winner in Egypt

Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute

December 13, 2011

At the end of the first round of voting in Egypt’s historic elections, Islamist parties appear headed for a decisive majority in the first freely elected parliament since the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak.

So far, the Freedom and Justice Party operated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest and best organized political movement, has won nearly 40% of the vote, followed by the ultraconservative Salafist parties with another 25%.

The “Islamist tsunami,” as some have dubbed it, has raised eyebrows in the West and raised concerns in Egypt over the future status of women, secular-minded Egyptians and the country’s substantial Christian minority.

The Muslim Brotherhood is attempting to reassure anxious Egyptians and foreigners alike and are reframing their imminent victory as a win for Egypt’s nascent democracy.

As one Brotherhood leader recently wrote in The Guardian, “There will be winners and losers. But the real—and only—victor is Egypt.”

Indeed, many democracy advocates inside and outside Egypt had long seen the elections as the surest way to force the ruling military council to cede power to a civilian-led government. While a democratic outcome may still be possible in the long run, for now the real winners may be neither the Islamists nor the Egyptian people but the country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Once universally viewed as a pillar of stability for a country in transition, the SCAF’s foot-dragging on basic reforms and its increasingly repressive tactics against all forms of dissent, including the trial of some 12,000 civilians before military tribunals and the use of deadly violence against young protesters in Tahrir Square in the lead-up to the elections, have convinced most Egyptians of the need to end military rule as quickly as possible.

SCAF has already violated its pledge to hand over power within six months and has made clear it wants to remain the power behind the power. The military says it will cede power to a civilian president by July 2012, but at the same time it seeks to preserve its myriad social, economic and political benefits, including its immunity from governmental oversight and its highly secretive shadow economy, estimated at around one-third of the national economy.

Despite SCAF’s attempts to cast itself as politically neutral, it has aggressively manipulated the political scene throughout the transition process in a bid to protect its interests. Indeed, Egypt’s military rulers have demonstrated a shrewd, almost Machiavellian, ability to keep the opposition weak and fractured, especially when it comes to exploiting decades-old animosities between Egypt’s Islamist and secular forces.

After having promoted the Islamists throughout most of the transition period, the unlikely alliance finally broke down in the weeks leading up to elections over the military’s attempts to usurp the incoming parliament’s authority in appointing a constituent assembly to draft the country’s next constitution. Up until then, both the Brotherhood and the Salafists had been relatively accommodating of the military, largely shunning mass protests and resisting calls for the military to cede power, which further helped inflame Islamist-secularist tensions.

The existing climate of social and political polarization is likely to be compounded by the unrepresentative nature of the new parliament, where liberal forces won only 18% of the vote.

The biggest losers in the electoral process have been the revolutionary youth groups that spearheaded the uprising in January and have been at the forefront of the democracy movement ever since. But they have largely shunned electoral politics in favor of continued street protests. In addition to the marginalization of the youth, much of it self-inflicted, a decisive Islamist majority will probably, as feared, leave groups such as women and Christians severely underrepresented as well.

All this comes at an especially sensitive moment in Egypt’s transition.

The Brotherhood’s electoral dominance cements its position as the chief power broker of the transitional period. In particular, the process of writing the country’s first post-revolutionary constitution will require consensus-building among Egypt’s disparate constituencies.

The Brotherhood’s ability to forge an alliance with secular liberal parties, which it says it prefers, will prove difficult in light of the deep mistrust on both sides. At the same time, a coalition with the Salafists may prove equally unworkable, if only because it would embody the worst fears of many Egyptians and foreigners alike. An all-Islamist parliamentary alliance could force Egyptian liberals into the arms of SCAF while providing the military with the perfect pretext to put off civilian rule. Indeed, SCAF officials wasted no time in minimizing the outcome of the elections, even suggesting the parliament’s role in writing the constitution would be severely curtailed.

Either way, the Brotherhood is likely to preside over a deeply divided parliament with vaguely defined powers. This is also to the advantage of SCAF, as any political stalemate, especially one marked by deepening social divisions, is likely to prolong military rule and forestall serious democratic reforms.

The Islamists’ parliamentary victory will no doubt fuel fears of an “Islamist takeover.” However, American and other Western policy makers should not lose sight of the big picture.

Although there may be reason to question the democratic credentials of Islamist groups, they have thus far played by the rules. The same cannot be said of Egypt’s military rulers, however, whose growing repression and desire to remain above the law pose a far more real and tangible threat to Egyptian democracy. Rather than fretting over an outcome whose implications are not yet known, the United States should pressure the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces to disentangle itself from the political process, respect the outcome of the elections, and return to the barracks as soon as possible.