The Mexican Standoff in Egypt

Any good spaghetti Western or Hong Kong action film culminates with a “Mexican standoff.” Classically, three protagonists stand, pistols drawn, all with each other in the crosshairs at close range. Theoretically, in this conundrum, the first to shoot is at a tactical disadvantage. More recently, Mexican standoffs have degenerated into a simpler formula in which two principals have each other at gunpoint, neither able to fire or stand down without unacceptable risk.

In the Arab world, Egyptians are renowned for their films and TV shows, especially their dramas and soap operas. The Egyptian “revolution” has, from the start, been a roller coaster alternating between epic heroic drama, mass tragedy, ludicrous farce, gangster-film intrigue and surrealism worthy of David Lynch. Now, with the dark inevitability of Greek tragedy, it has reached the “Mexican standoff” phase between the President and the army.

Army chief and Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Monday gave President Mohammad Morsi just 48 hours to resolve the political crisis rocking the country by finding an accommodation with the political opposition. If “the people’s demands” were not met in that timeframe, the military, he vowed, would assume their “responsibility to the nation” and enforce a “roadmap for the future.” The statement was unambiguous: Morsi must either resign, or call new, snap presidential elections at once. Otherwise he will face a de facto coup d’état.

Last night, Morsi responded with an angry, defiant and implicitly violent speech to the nation. He used the word “legitimacy” no less than 57 times in 45 minutes, and insisted that because he had won the election, any attempt to get him to engage in political compromise was a plot by remnants of the old regime, traitors, coup plotters and agents of foreign “hidden hands.” He repeatedly stated his willingness to shed his own blood and give his own life in defense of “legitimacy.” Most importantly, he offered no concessions, to the political opposition, the military, or the millions of Egyptians who continue to demonstrate for his resignation or new, immediate presidential elections.

As I write, Morsi has only hours to meet the military deadline, but he shows no signs of conciliation. Had he offered any significant concessions or proposals, he might have greatly strengthened his potential for staying in power. But instead, he angrily rebuffed both the protesters and the Army. He could always still offer a last-minute stand-down by agreeing to a national unity government and new presidential elections. But his speech strongly indicated he has already concluded the military, and probably a majority of Egyptians, have decided his term in office is over.

So his speech, and his implacably intransigent attitude, makes sense mainly in the context of someone who is preparing his followers for both a short-term fight (perhaps quite literally) they know they are going to lose, and a longer-term battle to reclaim power by planting the seeds of, and carefully cultivating, a growing narrative. Its claims are already laid out in Morsi’s, “over my dead body” and “just try and come and get me,” speech.

The Brotherhood and its allies are the “real revolutionaries” and those who oppose them a motley crew of villainous “counterrevolutionary forces.” The Brotherhood wisely shepherded Egypt out of dictatorship and into democracy. One of their own, Morsi, was legitimately elected president, only to be overthrown by subversive and anti-democratic elements. This is a cabal of the old regime, the deep state, the lawless thugs and hooligans, “foreign hidden hands,” and those who would destroy Egypt or insist on controlling it from afar. It’s deliciously conspiratorial and paranoid: perfectly suited to a Muslim Brotherhood mindset, which resembles that of a cult.

The military was not amused. They responded to Morsi’s overtly threatening speech withanother, even more terse, statement that it is “more honorable for us to die than for the Egyptian people to feel threatened or terrorized,” and that the military would “sacrifice our blood for Egypt and its people against every terrorist, extremist or ignorant person.” There can be no doubt who, they were implying, was threatening and terrorizing, or which parties they expect to qualify as a “terrorist, extremist or ignorant person.” The statement might as well been accompanied with a caricature of the President.

Tensions on the street continue to run extremely high. Violence is clearly in the air. But in this Mexican standoff, only one party has a real gun: the military. The Muslim Brotherhood has street-level cadres willing to fight, and no doubt die. And it was to them, and to some future self-justifying narrative, that Morsi was really speaking. The young revolutionaries and “ultras” soccer hooligans are also potential street fighting gangs, and probably even more effective than anything the Brotherhood can muster. But there are no real militias in Egypt. There is, in the end, only the Army.

So, with the clock ticking, and no evidence that Morsi intends to compromise in any serious way, the military’s bluff is being called. Assuming the deadline passes, as seems extremely likely, without any major last-minute initiatives, they are going to have to act to implement whatever “roadmap for the future” they have in mind.

According to Reuters, their current working plan involves suspending the Constitution, dissolving parliament, and trying to accommodate the blueprint already outlined by the opposition coalition National Salvation Front, headed by former U.N. official Mohamed ElBaradei. Reports in the Arabic-language Egyptian media further suggest it involves the arrest, or house arrest, of key Brotherhood figures and other more directly repressive measures.

The military insists that what they are proposing is not a coup. But of course they also insist their ouster of Mubarak wasn’t a coup either. The United States government has said it will not accept a coup. You can be sure that the military will make every effort to present any actions they take as not at all a coup. It will almost undoubtedly involve a figurehead, or perhaps even really empowered to some extent, civilian “unity” government led by a prominent national figure, with a plan for drafting a new constitution, and holding new presidential and parliamentary elections. It will not, the military insists, resemble the period of direct military rule following the overthrow of Mubarak, and at face value it surely won’t. The United States and the international community, for want of any better options, will probably cluck their tongues, but accept the idea this is not exactly a “coup”.

But unless there is a last-minute stand-down by either the president or the military there soon will be a coup. The military will be looking for a new partner to govern the country over the long run while allowing them to retain their zones of exclusive prerogative: defense and national security decisions, their secret budget and vast economic holdings. The Army has no interest in day-to-day government, so it needs a partner who can take care mundane governing while the military protects its own sphere of influence. Over the past two years, they reached such an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood. But with the collapse of Morsi’s popular legitimacy and the viability of his government, they need to look elsewhere now. Today the military command met with a group of opposition parties to try to negotiate agreed terms for a transitional framework, which is yet another indication that the die is cast.

Barring a last-minute compromise, the big question is how violent will the Islamist reaction be? Some degree of brouhaha is virtually inevitable. But will the Brotherhood make good on Morsi’s volunteering himself (almost certainly disingenuously) and his followers (quite possibly in all seriousness) for martyrdom? Will it be street-fighting, or will Egypt see a return to urban sabotage and terrorism when, as now seems almost inevitable, the military steps in? A full-blown civil war in Egypt seems very far-fetched, if not out of the question. But an extended period of violent unrest, as the country has seen several times in the past century, is a very plausible outcome. It would be yet another disaster for a country that is already strained economically, socially and politically, to the breaking point.

Since the overthrow of Mubarak, the aspirations of the Egyptian people to create a real democracy have suffered a series of devastating blows. Another coup, no matter how prettified, can hardly be a step in the right direction. But the collapse of the legitimacy of the Morsi government makes new elections necessary, and if he won’t agree to them—when even his most hard-core Salafist allies are demanding they take place—then someone has to force his hand. The bigger, more important long-term target is the unworkable, impossible and unspeakable Constitution the brotherhood and its allies rammed through what was passing for a political process in Egypt last year. It must be scrapped, or at least thoroughly amended from start to finish.

The key to a better political future in Egypt is the essential foundation of a functional, rational, serious constitution that can lay the basis for a modern, democratic state. It has to not only provide for freedom of speech, assembly, conscience and religion, and ensure regular, free and fair, multiparty elections with a regular peaceful transfer of power. It must also clearly delineate the limits of majority rule and the powers of government, enshrining as inviolable the rights inherent to each individual citizen, as well as minority groups and women. In short, it must put an end to the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist version of “democracy” as simple majoritarianism: 50 percent plus one gets to do anything it wishes.

An even harder task will be undoing the super-political powers reserved to the military, which were respected in the Mubarak era but even more deeply enshrined in the Muslim Brotherhood Constitution. Since in the Mexican standoff now taking place in Egypt only one party really has an actual gun, the process of getting the military to play by normative political rules and accept civilian control may be the most difficult, and long-term, political challenge the country faces. And for now, it would appear, the army is preparing to once again to be in charge, at least behind a tissue-thin curtain.