Military vs. Muslim Brothers in the Escalating Battle for Egypt's Future

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.

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Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi waves after casting his vote. (Reuters)

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.
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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?

Egypt might get a preview of the Brotherhood-SCAF clash as early as tomorrow. Last week, a court closely aligned with the military dissolved the democratically elected Parliament. Some members of Parliament, mainly those aligned with the Brotherhood, announced that they did not see the court's decision as legitimate and would meet in a Parliament session on Tuesday to determine their response. But the military has stationed troops outside the Parliament building and announced it will not allow anyone to enter. It's impossible to say what will happen tomorrow -- the Parliament meets peacefully after the military relents? troops crack down and send the MPs cowering home? the legislators meet instead at one of the tennis courts at the Zamalek Marriott? -- but it could say a great deal about how Egypt's military overlords and its largely Islamist elected officials will deal with one another.

In some ways, today's disputes, and possibly even the presidential vote itself (between Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, a former Mubarak senior official still closely tied to the old regime) is another act in the same drama that has captivated Egypt since February 12, when the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF woke up, saw the enormous power vacuum left by Mubarak's fall, and scrambled to fill it. Whatever the two groups' respective motivations, paths to power, and hopes for Egypt, this is the fight that has increasingly characterized Egypt's raucous post-Mubarak politics.

Marc Lynch observes that the "best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics" is Calvinball, a fictional game from the Calvin and Hobbes cartoon series in which "a game [is] defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along." All sides are not just changing their strategies moment-to-moment, they're attempting to re-write the rules of Egyptian politics to suit them. And, because Egypt doesn't have much in the way of democratic precedent (and because Mubarak sometimes used the same strategy), that's frighteningly easy for them to do.

Egypt's current political chaos also looks a bit like an extreme form of the Bush v. Gore madness that followed the disputed 2000 U.S. presidential election, with both candidates contesting not just the vote totals in Florida but the methods of counting those votes and the Supreme Court's role in overseeing it all. As in the U.S. 12 years ago, how Egypt resolves its current stand-off could determine who leads the country. But two important differences here are that, first, if Bush v. Gore was a fight between two democratically elected candidates, Egypt's drama is a fight between one democratically elected candidate and a military dictatorship. And, second, there's no truly independent Supreme Court in Egypt to step in and moderate, no clear path forward to resolve the dispute. If Egypt is very lucky, maybe the SCAF and Muslim Brotherhood will at least find a way to agree on which way the Nile flows. Other than that, there's no telling what will happen, but the dynamic between these two post-Mubarak power players could continue to be Egypt's most important.