Sunday Night’s Alright for Fighting

Deposed former Pres. Hosni Mubarak is reportedly lying in hospital in critical condition, and Egypt’s post-Mubarak political scene isn’t doing all that much better. Both candidates—the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsy and former Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq—are claiming victory and the Presidential Election Commission has postponed its official announcement from last Thursday to sometime this weekend. Everything is set for a protracted power struggle in Egypt.

 All week the rumor mill has been buzzing with various unnamed officials saying off the record that, contrary to Brotherhood claims, Shafiq, in fact, has won by 200,000-300,000 votes. A report this morning, citing “government sources,” says the Commission is set toannounce Shafiq’s victory on Sunday with 50.7 percent of the vote.

Egypt’s presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq (R), the last premier of ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, speaks during a press conference in Cairo. (Patrick Baz / AFP / GettyImages)

If Shafiq is declared the winner, not only will the Muslim Brotherhood angrily dispute the outcome, but many will believe that the tally has been somehow or another “cooked” to ensure the victory of the candidate representing existing Egyptian institutions over the long-standing Islamist opposition group. Earlier this week and today, the Muslim Brotherhood held huge rallies in Cairo in an obvious display of muscle flexing.

Events of the last week have done a great deal to complicate Egyptian politics, but the Brotherhood itself has three key weapons it can use in any unfolding power struggle.

First, it can claim popular legitimacy based on its strong performance in recent parliamentary elections (although those elections have since been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court). And it can claim that, according to its figures and most media reports, its candidate in fact did win the presidency. There’s no question that the Brotherhood is the most effective organizational political machine in the country, and its most powerful party.

Second, it has again demonstrated its ability to bring huge numbers of people into the street. This raises the specter of not only demonstrations, but possibly sustained protests and even riots should Shafiq be declared the victor. Brotherhood leaders have beeninsisting that they will not turn to any form of violence and that an “Algeria scenario” in which foiled elections lead inexorably to a bitter and bloody civil war is unthinkable in Egypt. However, the implications of its display of street-level power were not lost on anyone.

Third, it can try to mobilize support from those who are skeptical about its intentions but categorically determined to break the grip of the military and existing government institutions on power. It can try to pose as the vanguard of the revolutionary forces that overthrew the former regime, even though, in reality, it has had a very tense and fitful relationship with those forces. But in the context of what is being widely perceived as an illegitimate power grab by the forces of the “deep state,” it has the real potential to appeal to even some of those opposition forces who are deeply skeptical about its behavior and intentions.

To promote this narrative and to hedge against defeat, Morsy today announced he was forming a “National Revolutionary Front” with two other key figures who have previously resisted an overt embrace of the Brotherhood: former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed El Baradei and self-styled “liberal Islamist” Abdel Monem Abol Fotouh.

It’s also possible rumors about an impending Shafiq victory are intended to set up a “surprise” announcement that Morsy indeed has won. This might be intended to assuage concerns over recent declarations by the military accruing to itself extraordinary governance powers, by cultivating a sense of relief that an open confrontation has been avoided, or at least postponed, and that the results of the election will be widely accepted as valid. It’s also distinctly possible that the military, if not other existing government institutions, might believe that a weak and failing Morsy presidency can be useful to its purposes over the long run.

If there is a confrontation, as seems increasingly unavoidable especially if Shafiq is declared the new president, it is likely to be largely political rather than violent. And its outcome will almost certainly be some kind of deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. But such an accommodation will only be possible once the relative strengths of both parties have been thoroughly tested, possibly including in the streets, or when and if both feel they have secured their minimum necessary requirements.

Both the military and other existing government institutions and the Muslim Brotherhood have greatly contributed to the parlous situation in Egypt. Each has tried to shamelessly manipulate existing systems to strengthen its own hand, and both have failed the Egyptian people by behaving highly irresponsibly. Whatever is announced this weekend is unlikely to resolve matters clearly. Look forward to a long, hot summer in Egypt.