The looming power struggle in Egypt

A series of dramatic events over the past week seems to have made bitter power struggles in Egypt all but inevitable. Indeed, the situation is so volatile key factors may have shifted by the time this article is posted.

The most obvious is a potential battle over last weekend’s second-round presidential election. The Muslim Brotherhood immediately declared that its candidate, Mohammed Mursi, had defeated former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik by a significant margin. Shafik’s camp angrily disputed these claims, and an official election result announcement isn’t expected until Thursday.

But most independent observers believe that Mursi probably won, although by a much narrower margin than he claims. The Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, for example, estimated he won by just over 100,000 votes. While other scenarios are possible, the most likely is that officials will report a Mursi victory later on this week.

But such a victory may mean much less than Muslim Brotherhood supporters would have hoped. Over the weekend the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a new “constitutional amendment” transferring broad powers to itself and, most importantly, freezing SCAF’S composition in its current form.

So, even if Mursi is confirmed as president, the prerogatives of the office have just been greatly degraded by military fiat.

This comes on top of a court order dissolving the recently-formed Islamist-dominated parliament and ordering new elections. The Muslim Brotherhood, after several days of silence, has announced that it doesn’t recognize the order as valid and intends to persist with the work of the legislature. This means not only a confrontation with the court, but also with the military, which has made it clear that it intends to enforce the ruling.

So, major confrontations are potentially looming over the outcome of the presidential election, the role of the presidency, the legitimacy of the last elected parliament, and the power of the courts to intervene directly in Egyptian politics. This last confrontation might be greatly intensified on Tuesday, when courts are due to rule on a case that could lead to the formal disbanding of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization and its return to illegal status. If that happens, the long-term consequences are extremely difficult to predict.

It’s not clear what, if any, impact such a ruling would have on the legitimacy of a Mursi victory, assuming that it is confirmed later on this week. But it makes a direct confrontation likely. As it stands, protracted power struggles, even without a new ruling banning the Muslim Brotherhood as a legal organization, seem unavoidable.

Other potential flash points include a recent military declaration authorizing security forces to arrest civilians and refer them to military tribunals. This, in effect, reinstates the substance of the recently-lifted and long-hated Emergency Law. And the judiciary has also disbanded the parliament’s Constituent Assembly, which is tasked with drafting the constitution.

For many Egyptians and outside observers, the recent moves by the courts and the military—even without denying Mursi the presidency, assuming he has really won it legitimately, or again illegalizing the Muslim Brotherhood—already represent a coup d’état by forces associated with the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. Yet the results of the presidential election suggest that there is a very significant popular constituency for these forces, assuming that Shafik was widely understood as representing them.

Egyptian society, in other words, is deeply divided along multiple axes. Islamists and their allies among revolutionary forces, who prefer anyone over remnants of the former regime, are likely to view ongoing events as a dictatorial plot by a junta to thwart democracy. Most Shafik voters, by contrast, may well see the developments as an unpleasant but necessary step to forestall Islamist domination, which would, they undoubtedly feel, lead to an even more oppressive system, albeit backed up by some degree of popular mandate.

A large number of liberal revolutionaries who were crucial in bringing down the former regime have adopted a stance condemning both the Muslim Brotherhood and the military and its allies. And it’s likely that most long-suffering Egyptian voters are ideologically unaffiliated and simply want jobs, economic security, law and order, and to have their votes recognized rather than bypassed by decrees.

The Muslim Brotherhood traditionally doesn’t like confrontation, but it may be left with little choice and can try to deploy new leverage by claiming a popular mandate. The military has the guns and, for now at least, control of most state institutions. An accommodation is hard to envisage.

The coming months in Egypt, therefore, are almost certainly going to test the relative strengths of these forces. And this struggle will come at the expense of the Egyptian people.