Egyptian Military Seizes Power: Is This Democracy?

This post was co-authored by Shamil Idriss.

The constitution presented June 17 by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) -- the military junta that took power, purportedly on an interim basis, after the fall of Hosni Mubarak -- represents the final stage in its campaign to complete a "soft" coup. As such, it is reminiscent of the Algerian military's intervention in 1991 and Turkey's in 1997 -- power plays that subverted and delayed democratic transitions under the guise of "protecting" democracy from resurgent Islamist parties that had polled well in elections.

Just hours before the results from the second round of presidential elections began rolling in, the SCAF boldly and unambiguously asserted sweeping political and military powers: complete control over its own affairs (including control and continued secrecy around the use of over $1 billion in annual military aid from the United States), complete control over its own affairs, including budgetary autonomy as well as the ability to wage war without presidential or parliamentary approval; extraordinary powers of arrest over civilians; immediate assumption of legislative authority; defining and limiting the executive authority of the president; and overseeing the writing of Egypt's new constitution.

All of this came only days after the Mubarak carry-over and SCAF-influenced Constitutional High Court upheld the SCAF's dissolution of the democratically elected parliament and legitimized the candidacy of Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, former Mubarak Prime Minister and the military's (undeclared) presidential candidate, despite a political ban on the candidacy of former regime senior officials.

Ironically, this military coup brings about exactly the situation that the militaries in Algeria, Turkey, and now Egypt have warned about in the event that Islamists come to power democratically: "One man, one vote, one time."

While the majority of participants in the Tahrir uprising represented a cross section of Egyptian society, the SCAF early on recognized the potential power of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as the best organized and most influential opposition movement in Egypt. It deftly played to the small but powerful and wealthy remnants (fulool) of the old regime from Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) that populate the Egyptian courts, military, intelligence and security services, and used the state-run media to manipulate and exploit the fears of minority Copts, leftists, secularists and other citizens concerned about life under an Islamist dominated state.

At the same time the MB, though they had not been among the early leaders in Tahrir Square, quickly emerged as the key political organization in a state in which they had been the leading opposition, with a widespread reputation for lack of corruption, deliverance of social services, and a willingness to suffer repression and imprisonment as the price for standing up to the Mubarak regime. Their position and that of their political party, the Freedom and Justice Party, was strengthened by their strong presence throughout the diverse communities they serve across Egypt, their experience in previous elections and the fact that in the year after the overthrow of Mubarak, the non-Islamist activists were unable to unite in an effective political organization of their own.

The Brotherhood undermined themselves through multiple missteps reflecting the difficulty they have had at times to effectively distinguish between and function as a political party in a pluralistic democracy rather than an Islamic movement. They did not reach out early in the transitional period to build a strong politically diverse coalition. Instead, their leadership succumbed to a tendency to go it alone in dealing with the military and electoral politics. This was compounded when, in the aftermath of their victory in parliamentary elections and dominance -- together with Salafists -- of that legislative body, they undermined their credibility by withdrawing their pledge not to run a candidate in presidential elections. This step was seen as a threat not only by the military and fulool but also by many secular, socialists and Coptic factions. And the Brotherhood's appeal to voters beyond their own membership was further eroded when the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission (SPEC) -- a body of judges appointed by the ruling SCAF -- disqualified Khairat El-Shater, the Deputy Chairman of the Brotherhood, as the FJP's candidate for president. Rather than taking this opportunity to reassure those who feared dominance of the parliament and presidency by Islamists and broaden their political base by throwing their support to another presidential candidate, they ran Mohammed Mursi under the unconvincing rationale that no other candidate was as uniquely qualified as he to serve as president.

But where are we today? Yet again, despite problems and stumbles and the overwhelming financial resources that were mobilized to support the military's candidate Shafiq, the MB did what many had come to see as impossible and, as with the parliamentary elections, won the presidency. The election of Mursi is a testimony not just to the credibility of the FJP but even more to the fact that many who might have preferred to vote otherwise, were not about to hand their hard-fought revolution to the remnants of a totally discredited and corrupt Mubarak regime that reside most powerfully within the senior ranks of the military.

The SCAF may be banking that the missteps made by the Brotherhood have so undercut the FJP's credibility and appeal outside the ranks of the Brotherhood's own members, that Egyptians will look the other way as the generals grab more and more power. But from Tahrir Square in early 2010 to the voting booths in 2012, the Egyptian people have sent an unambiguous message that, for them, there is not turning back. One can hope that the Brotherhood is learning quickly that political coalitions are important when governing, and not only when revolting against authoritarianism, but one thing is clear: This can only be tested once the military goes back to its barracks.