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Military Power Play in Egypt

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 18, 2012

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Egypt is awaiting the June 21 expected official result of the weekend's runoff presidential election between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, prime minister under former president Hosni Mubarak. Regardless of the result, the Egyptian military issued a decree on June 17 that gives itself sweeping powers. Effectively, the military says it "will not be subordinate to a new civilian president," says CFR Egypt expert Steven A. Cook. While Morsi and Shafiq are both claiming victory, Morsi reportedly seems to be ahead. Cook says that the military's declaration was intended as "a hedge against Mohamed Morsi." He adds, "The military is obviously deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood being in a position of power," regarding it as a threat to its own power as well as its economic interests.

What's going on now in Egypt?

It is an effort on the part of the military to preserve a position that it has enjoyed since the regime was founded by military officers in the 1950s and to maintain the economic interests that it has developed over these many years.

A lot, as usual. First, with regards to the candidates, they are both claiming victory. There are conflicting reports as to who is leading. Egypt's major daily Al-Ahram is reporting that Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, leads Ahmed Shafiq by nine hundred thousand votes or so. This is going to be an interesting next few days while they come to an official vote count. There's obviously a lot of opportunity for all kinds of things to happen during this period, including challenges to the voting, fraud--although there have not been reports of too much fraud.

What was the military's action all about?

Over the weekend, they issued an addendum to the constitutional declaration that they issued in March 2011. Without getting too much into the details of it, it essentially says that the military will not be subordinate to a new civilian president. It says that the president may not declare war without the assent of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). It maintains the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as is. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was an organization that existed before--it was a much broader, bigger subset of the Egyptian Officer Corps. It will now remain the nineteen officers that we've grown familiar with over the last sixteen months, and it will be autonomous unto itself, which is essentially what this constitution declaration--which has created a tremendous outcry in Cairo--is all about. People are suggesting that the military is trying to create a state within a state. Others have said that it is, along with the dissolution of the parliament, a coup d'état.

What brought this about?

The decree was related to two things: One, the SCAF was not at all convinced that its candidate Ahmad Shafiq would win, so this was a hedge against Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. The military is obviously deeply uncomfortable with the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood being in a position of power. It is an effort on the part of the military to preserve a position that it has enjoyed since the regime was founded by military officers in the 1950s and to maintain the economic interests that it has developed over these many years. If he wins, Shafiq would be in a situation similar to what the officers enjoyed while Mubarak [a former air force general] was in power, a delegate of their own looking out for their own interests. Morsi is a very different story.

Talk a bit about the abolishing of the lower house of Parliament, which occurred right before the election. What's all that about?

The Supreme Constitutional Court issued the decision last Thursday in which it found that a third of the seats--the seats reserved for independents--were null and void because of the way in which the independent candidates were chosen. The court said this violated the principle of equality between the candidates, and nullified the independents' seats. The chief of the Supreme Constitutional Court the next day said this means that the whole parliament can be voided, and then the SCAF stated in a decree that the parliament is dissolved. Yet there is nowhere written down that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has the ability to dissolve the lower half of the parliament. All it says in the constitutional declaration going back to March 2011 is that it has the right to adjourn the People's Assembly, but not to dissolve it.

Clearly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is stepping outside the legal bounds to undermine a parliament that is dominated by both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour Party. Although this is obviously controversial, oddly it has not produced an explosion of demonstrations in opposition either among revolutionaries, liberals, leftists, labor, or even the Muslim Brotherhood, against whom it was clearly targeted.

You're saying it hasn't created that much of a stir, but there seems to be talk about people trying to force parliament open on Tuesday, June 19. Are big riots in store?

People are suggesting that the military is trying to create a state within a state. Others have said that it is, along with the dissolution of the parliament, a coup d'état

It's certainly possible. We were in some ways expecting this to happen when these decisions were handed down Friday, but it didn't materialize. Some of the indications were that people were tired, that they have been mobilized for sixteen months, that some of the groups that have been working and struggling toward a different Egypt have now decided that they cannot take on this situation, that they need to take a longer view and try to develop a political program over the course of five years to mobilize people and develop a more democratic Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood has had a very interesting response. The parliamentary leaders from the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood's party, had rejected the dissolution of the parliament, but didn't mobilize the Brotherhood to go out into the streets. That may yet be coming; it also may be an effort on the part of the Brotherhood to step back and not engage in a direct confrontation with the military, which has historically been the Brotherhood's tactic. They have avoided since the mid-1950s a direct confrontation with the state for fear of being systematically destroyed.

The Brotherhood wants to see if in fact Morsi wins the election before they do anything crazy, right?

Yes.

But if Shafiq is declared the winner, will people accept that?

There are a lot of people who will not accept Shafiq as the new president of Egypt, who they think would essentially be a return to the status quo in a lot of ways. But so much has changed in Egypt that I don't think that Shafiq in combination with the military can recreate Mubarak's Egypt so easily, but he does certainly represent the interests of the leadership of the old regime of the military. The question is if Shafiq is declared the winner, whether his claims of having a popular mandate will actually go over well. Certainly, it will with his voters--he apparently has the majority in Cairo-- but what will be the response of those who, in particular, instigated the uprising? Many of those people spoiled their ballots saying that they would vote neither for Morsi nor Shafiq.

The vote count is fairly low. Is that right?

I've heard this as well, but the last turnout number I saw was close to 50 percent--that doesn't seem like a lot, the parliamentary elections were in the neighborhood of 54 percent, but 49 percent is still a lot. Clearly, despite the problems associated with this election and the controversy surrounding it, there're still lots of people willing to vote.

If you had to predict the next weeks, what is going to happen? Is the Egyptian military going to take on more power again?

They already have taken on more power; they now hold legislative power, something they had during the transitional period before the parliament was elected. There will be, ostensibly, a new election for the parliament in September. The military had a press conference saying that increasing power is not its intention, but certainly given the constitutional decree of Sunday, it seems that they are prepared to take on more power. That's not to suggest that they want to stay in government. That's not to say that they want to continue administering Egypt on a day-to-day basis. That would be a misreading of what this constitutional decree indicates. What they would like to do is return to the position that they were in under Mubarak where they could play an influential role from behind the scenes--that they would be the ultimate force of authority and power in this system; and that their economic interests would be taken care of. The military is concerned that, potentially under Morsi, these types of things would be under threat, and thus this constitutional decree, which basically says the army will not be subordinate to the next president of Egypt.

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