June 2012

Now that the hemming and hawing of the Egyptian presidential elections has passed (in what Marc Lynch dubbed a game of “Calvinball”) and Moursi declared the winner, we have a number of vital questions to ask. That the SCAF was willing to accept Moursi as a de-fanged president may have been obvious by their last-minute attempt to defang him or whoever else came into office, though they no doubt would have preferred Shafiq (one of their own). What isn’t obvious is to what extent Moursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are willing to accept the SCAF. What’s unknown here is principally what does the Brotherhood truly want and how savvy are they at getting it?

Some have speculated that Moursi’s next few weeks must be filled with trying to wrangle a compromise from the SCAF, to get them to devolve some power to the presidency and parliament, and ideally to agree (via the election commission and high court) to hold a rerun for only the third of parliamentary seats that were contested by parties running as independents. If the rest of the two-thirds of parliament could be reconvened, they say, Moursi and Egyptian democracy would have a real chance (There’s even a site to hold Moursi to account for these changes within his first hundred days, a la American presidents, here).

Fine enough, but it is not out of bounds to ask if Moursi or the Brotherhood even care about this. I along with everyone else have been assuming that the goal of both was to rule and that they were conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations towards that end, but there’s no hard evidence of this. It is possible that the Brotherhood has decided it can live with a symbolic presidency; that holding such a high-profile position, even devoid of true power, would help them in their larger goal: bringing Egyptian society more in line with their view of Islamic morality.

If this is the case, then there may not be any negotiations and those waiting for reform will wait a long time. But I have to say that if this is the case, then the Brotherhood may find itself in the unenviable position a year or so from now of appearing to the general public to be in power, and thus responsible for “fixing” many facets of Egyptian life, but without actually being able to do anything about it. This would likely suit the SCAF just fine: setting up a fall-guy administration to take the heat for failure to fix the economy and a host of other issues. Shafiq’s next run for president might go somewhat better.

But assuming that Moursi and the Brotherhood do want to rule, and are trying to cut deals to do just that, my question is are they going to try and win back concessions from the SCAF, or outmaneuver them? The scenario I outlined above works both ways: since the economic issues are not likely to be solved by the Brotherhood or the SCAF, there’s a good chance that in a year’s time public anger will be focused on whomever they see as being chiefly responsible for the continued failure. If the SCAF can use Moursi as a patsy to take the heat, then they win. If Moursi can make the SCAF look responsible, then he and the Brotherhood win. So look for major PR campaigns with Moursi & Co. clamoring about how the SCAF is preventing them from making real change, and vice versa.

The biggest problem with this strategy for the Brotherhood is that there’s no easy endpoint in sight. The Brotherhood can’t force the SCAF to give up power just by channeling popular anger. One way or another, to get real power from them, it has to come to blows. I can’t help but feel that this week’s machinations have only succeeded in kicking the problem down the field, perhaps for another year—it might not even make it until the next elections.

One final thought: all of the above assumes much in regards to how much Moursi and the Brotherhood’s interests converge. That’s probably fair to assume at the moment, but will that still be the case a year hence? Moursi has been picked on for seeming unsophisticated and politically unsavvy, but that reminds me of how the unsavvy Nouri al-Maliki was characterized when first elected Iraqi PM as a compromise candidate. Say what you will about al-Maliki, he managed to survive and against the odds recreate himself as a major power player. If I were the SCAF, I would be making sure to give cash incentives to Moursi and other key figures even while setting them up for the fall. When the Brotherhood decides that they need to act, will they find that Moursi is still their man?

One thing I really like about Marc Lynch is his humility, as evidenced in his Thursday post at FP: “I was joking on Twitter yesterday [Weds] that the expert consensus that today [Thurs] would be a big crisis day in Cairo probably meant nothing would happen, since everybody (including me) is always wrong.”

Well, as it happens, yesterday (Thurs), the Cairene house of cards caved in when the Constitutional Court lived down to everyone’s expectations and not only ruled in favor of Shafiq’s right to run in the presidential elections, but also dissolved the newly elected Parliament for having violated its own rules in running parties for independent seats. The thing is, they’re right on both counts, but those rules are holdovers from the previous regime (i.e., the current regime), and in making that call, the Court has announced that it firmly stands with the SCAF against the people. Perhaps more importantly, it signals that any chance of the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood coming to some sort of political arrangement is dead.

The SCAF’s power grab in the final days looks more like panic than the execution of a carefully prepared master scheme. It likely reflected a combination of fear of rising Islamist power, self-preservation, and growing confidence in its ability to control street protests.  The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood controlling Parliament and the presidency likely scared them more than many people conditioned by speculation about a MB-SCAF alliance recognized…. Of course it wanted to preserve its economic empire and political protections. But both of those were constant over the course of the transition, and don’t explain its heavy-handed moves at the climax of the process. 

I couldn’t agree more. What then is in store for the future? It seems to me that the most important question now is what will the Brotherhood do with this news? They were immediately convening strategy meetings, last I heard, but I’m not sure if they’ve decided anything. Many will likely boycott the runoff election this weekend. The Brotherhood may, therefore, decide that their lead over Shafiq is enough that they should continue with the process; that they have more to lose than gain by exiting the process, sham though it may be.

As Lynch says:

The SCAF likely believes that a renewal of massive, sustained protest is no longer in the cards through a combination of its own repression and relentless propaganda, along with the strategic mistakes by protestors themselves. It doesn’t feel threatened by a few thousand isolated protestors in Tahrir, and probably is gambling that they won’t be joined by the masses that made the Jan. 25 revolution last year. They may also feel that the intense rifts of suspicion and rage dividing the Muslim Brotherhood from non-Islamist political trends are now so deep that they won’t be able to cooperate effectively to respond. Or they may feel that the MB would rather cut a deal, even now, than take it to the next level. They may be right, they may be wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on stability.

Nor would I, though the relative quiet on the streets may suggest otherwise. I think it likely that the Brotherhood will decide that since a deal could not be worked out with the SCAF (and I assume here that they’ve been trying), that the only real option for them is take things back to the street. If so, they will this time lead the revolution from the start. They may also try to mobilize their members in the military. If the SCAF isn’t watching for that, they’re likely dead already. If they are … well, any way you look at it, this seems likely to get messy.

This weekend and next week seem like critical moments in determining what comes next. I find it difficult to think that there’s any future without blood in the streets in store, but politics are often surprising, and stranger deals have been cut in darkened rooms.

The SCAF may be right that the Brotherhood is still willing to deal, but we can’t ignore that the next move may well be the start to the real revolution—the equivalent to the October Revolution in Russia vice the earlier February Revolution that put the members of the Duma in charge. Are Moursi and Shater up to the Leninist mantel? We’ll see.

Vali Nasr had an interview with CFW on the violence in Syria and its implications. Nasr has become a sort of go-to expert for all things Middle Eastern and politically Islamic in recent years, which is slight departure from his true expertise: Islamism in Pakistan. I have no problem with generalists or in someone using expertise in a specific area more broadly—critical thinking is an asset to be broadly applied, and Vali Nasr’s is a first-class intellect—but Nasr seems to me to intentionally play into the media spotlight and he sometimes loses fidelity to “ground truth” by focusing on epiphenomena.

The Shia Revival was misunderstood by the grand public as a threat by an upsurging minority bent on political dominance across the Middle East, threatening all that we understood (or thought we did) about the balance of power in that region. The misunderstanding as has much to do with King Abdullah of Jordan’s coining of the term “Shia crescent” as it does the habit of the general public not to fully read books or to latch on to sensational aspects of them. Really, all he was pointing out was that religion still mattered, that it had political effects, and that it mattered in the Middle East in terms of the old split between Sunni and Shia. This was just the local manifestation of what Samuel Huntington had pointed out ten years before in The Clash of Civilizations, where he argues that such identity politics would become the norm. Both books elide nuances in order to make a larger argument on a grand scale, but like with other grand theorists, there’s something there that nitpicking the details doesn’t dispel.

In this piece, I think Nasr is right in his overarching argument that the violence in Syria is part of a reshuffling of power between interests groups more so than a fight for democracy, but he misrepresents the sectarian and ethnic divisions in antebellum Syria as being a case of minority repression. Unlike what Nasr states here, the Alawi in Syria have not exerted tyrannical control over a mostly Sunni population; the Assad regime, which is Alawi, has exerted tyrannical control over the entire Syrian population, which is mostly Sunni.

The Alawi population owes much to the regime—it derives social and economic privilege, and by some reports, its entire identity now derives from the regime vice any theological or cultural distinctions—but the regime derives little from the Alawi. Alawi make up a large percentage of military elite, but the business and other elites are Sunni or Christian, etc.

Syria is a complex tapestry. That’s an overused expression, but in this case (as with Lebanon) it’s a good one as the whole society is knitted together, knots on knots, with no real sense of how the whole thing hangs together beyond faith. Ok, maybe not a tapestry; more like macramé.

Marc Lynch had, on the whole, a pretty good post over at FP the other day. While I disagree with a few of his points, I thought this was well said:

The results are mainly surprising given popular ideas about the elections in advance.  Polling was indeed almost completely useless, radically exaggerating Amr Moussa’s share of the vote and missing the appeal of the actual front-runners.   Shafik was likely underestimated because people (on all sides) assumed that Moussa was the real candidate of the SCAF and that the fix was in on his behalf.  Morsi was dismissed because many observers confused the individual with the movement;  in fact, helped by the relatively low turnout, the Brotherhood’s electoral machine probably performed just as well for him as it would have for the disqualified Khairet el-Shater.  Democratic elections often fail to produce desirable results — it’s the nature of the beast.  

He also points out that the US was quietly hoping that Amr, with whom they feel comfortable they could work, would win. This is true, though it is debatable how quiet they were. The Intelligence Community and policymakers did the same thing over Saif al-Islam in Libya, hoping beyond hope that he would be a reformer that would keep things in line but allow enough democratic and economic reform that we could stop worrying about the sorts of terrible people we tend to support. This sort of deus ex machina faith also led the US to place bets on Bashar al-Assad, Nuri al-Maliki, and even Saddam Hussein once.

But beyond that, I disagree with Marc that a Moursi win would lack credibility in the eyes of the Egyptian public; in the eyes of the secular liberals, sure, but they are a small, discombobulated minority. I also think he takes the clarity of hindsight too far in thinking that Shafiq’s electoral standing was inevitable.

The real fault in this piece, however, stems from a basic assumption that many make in assuming that electoral politics in the US (or the West more generally) is universal; that politics in Egypt can be analyzed with the same sort of jaded and blasé attitude to which we are accustomed by pundits here. Frankly, those pundits are often wrong in the case of US politics, so there is little reason to assume that such thinking should be accurate in a society that is only now developing a political logic. However politics in Egypt will work, we  just don’t yet know.

This week has been a big one in Egypt, what with the first round of elections and now the sentencing of Mubarak. Of course, the real story of both will take time to play out, but now is the time to start asking questions. Looking at the election, the most obvious question is who will win? Second, what does it mean? What are the ramifications?

Well, I don’t know who will win and neither does anyone else – despite what some may say, there is plenty of room for the major actors to maneuver? Moursi and Shafiq are headed into a runoff  and it is unclear where the support from some of the losing candidates will go. We can reason that Foutouh’s supporters will go to Moursi, so that’s an additional 11% or so, but Sabbaha and Amr’s folks are more difficult to judge. Would they go to Shafiq either because they long for security or as a hedge against the Muslim Brotherhood! Or would they opt for the Brotherhood’s leadership as a means to secure democratic governance and “win” the revolution?

As always, the interests of the elites matter greatly, and the military remains the most powerful elite. So, who will they back? It would seem common sense that they would back Shafiq – he’s one of them after all, and there is the suspicious circumstances of his being able to run despite being a part of the former/current regime, having been removed from and the. Restored to the ballot by the Election Commission, and his receiving far more electoral support than anyone expected.

That all argues for behind the scenes SCAF support despite the assurances of international monitors (the voting itself might be without coersion, but that says nothing for the backroom deals being cut or the incentives being quietly offered). But we don’t know that any of those factors was necessarily from the SCAF. Shafiq has his own connections (which in many cases would overlap those of the SCAF), and it is always possible that there are no strings being pulled at all, that despite the hatred many Egyptians bear towards him, many also genuinely support him (military and their families vote too).

But whether or not the SCAF was backing him, is it safe to say that they would continue after the first round? I don’t think that can be a given. The SCAF is composed of a bunch of cagey operators that despite being unfamiliar with the ins and outs of electoral politics, who how to judge which way the winds blow and how to make deals. I think it quite likely that it could cut a deal with the Brotherhood to assure the maintenance of some of its privileges in exchange for governance. If that’s the case, we could well see a slow erosion of those privileges over time a la the AKP’s rise in Turkey. We’ll call this the more hopeful option.

But what might a Shafiq win mean? It is always possible that a Shafiq presidency could lead to a return to stability, either in a new democratic framework or as a return to the ancien regime, but I think it more likely that his victory at the polls would spell out civil war.

The Russian revolution began as a result of popular unrest and an insider government taking over in the name of the people, trying to act as a compromise to all parties. But they didn’t devolve enough power (or devolved just enough, depending on how you look at it), and the Bolshevik’s turned against their comrades and booted them out the door. I think the Brotherhood in Egypt have far too good of a network and have gotten far too close to what they are after to allow the SCAF to pull out the rug from under them now. Should the SCAF try and steal the election, they would revolt, and this time, they would see it through. They could do this via marshalling the populace and possibly through the inside. I have read and been told from some with more direct experience than I that the Brotherhood has support among members of the military, both among the rank and file members and among the all-important junior officer levels.

The SCAF are cagey operators, but we will have to see just how cagey.