The Egyptian elections might be distressing, but they hardly set in stone Israel’s immediate destiny. The Muslim Brotherhood won a very symbolic victory yesterday, not a practical one. He’s merely a figurehead for the military junta in control of the country – a symbolic move toward democracy that the army doesn’t intend to carry any future significance for progress toward democracy in Egyptian politics. Whether you interpret this understanding of events as positive or negative (i.e., degrading the Muslim Brotherhood’s power), the Muslim Brotherhood will be struggling to dictate policy as long as its man has the executive title. In fact, that is where my concern rests.
Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi’s cadre – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – has acted to hold on to power throughout the post-revolutionary period. He orchestrated the coup that removed Mubarak; presidential elections were delayed several times; Egypt’s parliament has been left relatively emasculated regarding its power. In summary, the power struggle between the military and civilians will probably go on for at least another couple of years – if not longer.
But what should concern people isn’t if Egypt’s revolution will become militant, but if it is not so much a revolution as it is a military coup. I clearly made my thoughts on the matter obvious a few paragraphs above. Egypt saw coups and assassinations in the 20th century. Nasser overthrew the country’s king in 1952, in fact expecting that civilians would take over the country eventually while his officers faded into the background. It didn’t happen that way. He took over as President by 1954, leading his own coup overthrowing the military ruler of the time. It’s that model that jumps to mind. The model where coups were common place in Syria, Iraq and Egypt in the mid-20th century. Ideology is contagious. A devout officer with a strong following in Egypt’s army might topple the current leadership and take over for himself. Forget about Morsi or the Brotherhood’s tepid politics. Egypt could be ruled by someone far worse and with no political rivals.
It’s impossible to know if Egypt will follow Turkey’s transition to democracy, Iran’s descent into authoritarian theocracy, or become a new paradigm for revolutions in the world of politics. Robin Wright penned a book about 10 years ago called “The Last Great Revolution” about the 1979 Iranian upheaval. In modern history, the French and Russian revolutions marked turns in history that ushered in new forms of government – democratic and socialist republics. Iran, in that vain, was a theocratic republic, according to many the first of its kind. Egypt is not following the same pattern of revolution that Iran did. The old regime was completely swept away in 1979. There was hardly a military transition, much less oversight for the country’s first elections.
Similar to Iran though is the Muslim Brotherhood’s outreach to more liberal parties. It was an alliance of Iranian religious and communist revolutionaries that overthrew the Shah. But by 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini had purged liberals and socialists from the ranks of government, leaving tens of thousands dead. The Brotherhood is still on the outside looking in. The presidency has been defanged and stands as a figurehead in Cairo. But of course, a sympathetic contingent in the army is all that dictators have needed in the past. Sympathy for an emotional cause can provoke such upheavals often unexpectedly.
Take for instance the Brotherhood’s victory rally, where the crowd was riled up to chant for a military invasion of Jerusalem. That concept resonated with the people who would rule Iran, and they’ve become material supporters for Hamas and Hezbollah. Arab nationalist and Islamist politicians have gained political traction off such ideas, so too might they gain military allies the same way.
But Egypt’s rulers have always been better at public speaking than leadership. Gamal Abdul Nasser appeared in public celebrations for three weeks after he kicked UN monitors out of the Sinai Peninsula in 1967 – an arrogance that humiliated Egyptians by the end of the Six Day War a month later. Whether or not pompous trash-talking in Egyptian political culture has ended remains to be seen, but the bombastic words of yesterday’s rallies indicate Islamists aren’t avoiding speaking toughly and carrying a small stick.
Muhammad Morsi has yet to outline a foreign policy, much less a military one. Before he decides how to interact with Israel, he’s going to have to decide how to interact with Egyptians themselves. But then again, the decisions might not even be in his hands. Egypt’s army has emulated the coups of old by taking down Mubarak. It’s not unprecedented. it sets the stage for similar events to come.