Yesterday's presidential vote and today's dispute over whether its winner will have any real power are the latest chapter in the ongoing struggle between Egypt's two biggest players.
A few hours after the polls closed on Egypt's first-ever free presidential election on Sunday, and a few hours before the Muslim Brotherhood would read the polls and declare their candidate Mohammed Morsi the winner, the chiefs of the Egyptian military released its surprise "interim constitution" outlining the new government's (very limited) powers and responsibilities. Sure, Egypt actually already has a civilian constitutional assembly, appointed by the democratically elected Parliament, which had won that right after millions of Egyptians revolted against President Hosni Mubarak's rule. But the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in this high hour of democratic transition, seems to have its own agenda. "Under the military's charter, the president appeared to be reduced to a powerless figurehead," the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick wrote. The Guardian's write-up of the interim constitution ran with the headline "Egypt's generals act to negate outcome of presidential poll."
It gets worse. This morning, as Morsi's victory looked increasingly likely (though still not certain), an official who heads an ambiguous SCAF "advisory council" announced to reporters that the "new president is a transitional one for few months only ... The upcoming president will occupy the office for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees." Elsewhere in Cairo, a SCAF spokesman held a bizarre press conference insisting that, despite having just issued an interim constitution granting themselves broad powers including a veto over some key presidential powers, it is actually the president who can veto them, so "chill out and trust us," as one reporter paraphrased. Separately, a senior SCAF officer told Egypt's state-run news agency that they will peacefully transfer power to the president outright in a fun-sounding "grand ceremony" later this month.
In other words, no one knows for sure what's going to happen next, possibly including the SCAF itself, which has governed unpredictably and apparently by-the-seats-of-their-pants since assuming power after Mubarak's departure last year. But the Muslim Brotherhood, which after a decades-long struggle to merely exist (which, at its darker moments, included prison sentences or worse for some members) has managed to secure both a Parliament near-majority and the presidency of the government that once banned them, isn't taking this without a fight.
At Morsi's victory rally late last night, gatherers briefly chanted "down with military rule." That doesn't seem to be the Muslim Brotherhood's official position, but the group is certainly positioning itself as challenging SCAF's ever-expanding power. It has officially rejected the military-designed "interim constitution," setting up a potential stand-off between the Brotherhood and the military. What happens if the civilian government, possibly led by a Muslim Brother president and heavily MB Parliament, simply refuses to follow the military's constitution? Does the military back down? Does it respond with force against the civilian government, formalizing the military coup that many liberal Egyptian activists believe is already underway? Do the two groups negotiate out an informal power-sharing arrangement like that of 1990s Turkey, where military generals and elected Islamists both held power in a problematic but functional democracy?