By ZVI Mazel
The Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still fighting for supremacy, with no clear winner so far.
On the one hand, the Supreme Constitutional Court has refused to strike down the supplementary constitutional declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (a declaration granting the generals legislative powers and sole control over the army among other extraordinary prerogatives); on the other a ruling on the dissolution of the constituent assembly has been deferred until September.
Needless to say, the assembly is working round the clock drafting articles relying heavily on the Sharia and asserting the supremacy of civilian authorities, with the army having to answer to the president. If the constitution is drafted in time, it will be submitted to the people in a referendum before the court has made public its decision. It will then be nearly impossible for the court to rule against the democratically expressed will of the people.
Strangely enough, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is invested with the right to take part in the drafting of the constitution even after the president takes office, remains silent. No one knows if this is because the generals are biding their time – or because they are ready to give up.
President Mohamed Morsi has at long last appointed a prime minister, Hisham Kandil, a little-known technocrat known to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new government comprises ministers who are technocrats or Brothers – sometimes both; two women, one of them the token representative of the Coptic minority; Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi remains the minister of defence; and a former general is minister of the interior.
Meanwhile, Ramadan and its constraints are piling hardship upon hardship on a people who can’t wait to see some better conditions.
An unprecedented heat wave has led to frequent power failures and cuts in the water supply at a time when millions of Egyptians have to fast from sunset to sundown. Most of the country still relies on butane canisters to cook the end of the fast supper, but supplies are running low and people have to queue for hours under the scorching sun.
Last week there was a riot when it became obvious that there would not be enough for all; five people died, dozens were wounded.
Throughout the country, tempers run high and quarrels often turn ugly.
Here are some incidents taken from the Egyptian press: In a small village in Upper Egypt, soldiers are accused of importuning respectable women; in the ensuing riot security forces open fire, killing four. A man is killed by guards in an incident in the luxury Nile Towers complex in Cairo; friends and family from the nearby slums turn to the streets, burning cars, looting and attacking official buildings.
Dozens of people are arrested, tear gas floods the tenements.
Sectarian clashes, always a problem in the country, are escalating, Muslim extremists and Salafis feeling that they have the support of the government.
In a Cairo suburb, the shirt of a Muslim customer is accidentally burned by a Coptic laundryman while ironing. Insults fly, then fighting begins in earnest.
Businesses and houses belonging to Copts are torched. It takes a whole week to restore calm, but a number of Coptic families have had to flee.
President Morsi publicly appeals for tolerance and swears to maintain order.
However, this is a promise he cannot keep. Order disappeared from the streets a long time ago. Rich families now send children to school with armed bodyguards – after a spate of kidnapping for ransom. Women are routinely harassed in the streets. Hospitals take desperate measures to protect their stocks of drugs from armed thugs who push their way inside. Tourism, the all-important source of work for millions of Egyptians, is plummeting. For the first time in history, storekeepers in Cairo’s huge Khan el- Khalil market left their stalls to demonstrate.
As usual, the press looks for a scapegoat. There is the United States of course – witness the popular anger at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit – but Israel is the target of choice. A Cairo television channel thought up a stunt for the long Ramadan programs: A number of celebrities were called to what they thought was an interview with German television.
Once in the studio, they were “told” that it was in fact Israeli television. One enraged actor started hitting the young woman anchor, throwing her to the ground.
Then there was the bizarre episode of the presidential letter. President Shimon Peres having sent a message to President Morsi on the occasion of Ramadan, an answer was duly transmitted to him via the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. The reply was published in the Israeli papers, provoking anger and indignation in Egypt to such an extent that a spokesman for Morsi denied the existence of the letter.
Still, last week was not all bad. The World Bank granted a generous long-term loan to Egypt; the country got a silver medal in fencing at the Olympic games in London; and lastly, and far more important, the new minister of sports announced that soccer games, interrupted since violent incidents in Suez several months ago, would start anew.
ZVI Mazel, a fellow at The Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.