By Mayuri Mukherjee
Jun 28 2012
The euphoria over the appointment of Egypt’s first democratically elected President has been dampened by the Army’s efforts to emasculate that high office, prompting speculation of a soft coup. But there’s no clear winner. Just an open playing field and a game without any rules
The world had seen it before. The million-strong crowd, the triumphant flag waving, the sloganeering, the firecrackers and the life-size posters, and the relentless victory dance. The images that were broadcast from Egypt this past Sunday, when the name of that country’s first democratically elected President was announced, were both expectedly and yet ironically similar to the ones that had flickered on our screens 14 months ago when a popular pro-democracy movement led to the ouster of Egypt’s long-serving autocrat. The process of democratic transition that had started then with the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak, in effect came full circle on Sunday with the appointment of his successor — Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. Expectedly then, the day’s celebrations matched in fervour and tenor the victory pitch of February 2011. But given the fact that Mr Morsi’s high office has already been emasculated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces — the handful of Army Generals who currently run the country —Sunday’s euphoric revelry over a process that had surely started with a bang but has now been reduced to a whimper seemed rather silly.
SCAF’s sudden diktat came last week just as the counting of votes polled on June 16 and 17 had got underway. Issued in the form of an amendment to the original Constitutional Declaration, it severely limits the powers of the President, denying him not just oversight over the military but also negating his control over the key Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Moreover, through the amendment, SCAF has also conveniently accorded to itself sweeping powers over the Constitution drafting process that is yet to begin. And that is not all. Only days before the presidential election began, SCAF nullified a previous election law that disqualified a majority of Egypt’s elected legislators and effectively dismantled Parliament — this time through the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The popular mood was further dampened by the fact that Egypt found itself faced with two unpalatable choices for the post of President. With most of the leading candidates having been thrown out of the race on flimsy grounds in the first round itself, it was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second-choice candidate, Mr Morsi, and the military’s pro-regime candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, who found themselves catapulted to the forefront.
For many Egyptians, this last round polling was not about voting for a leader but against another. On the one hand was Mr Morsi — an unremarkable Muslim Brotherhood functionary barely known outside of his party offices with little political experience. On the other hand was Mr Shafiq — the military-backed, former Air Force commander who had briefly served as Mubarak’s last Prime Minister in the heady days of the ‘revolution’ in 2011. The deeply polarising nature of the presidential run-off was evident in the final votes tally. While Mr Morsi garnered 52 per cent of the votes, Mr Shafiq was snapping at his heels at 48 per cent. It was a close fight that was followed by a nail-biting week of anxiety as SCAF delayed the announcement of the results, leading to speculation of electoral fraud.
After all, the military had been understandably nervous of the Muslim Brotherhood capturing a lion’s share of the Egyptian political space. Little else explains its rash decisions to abolish the democratically elected Parliament where the Islamists held an overwhelming majority of the seats, and soon after clip the wings of the President at a time when there was a very real possibility that a member of the Brotherhood would occupy the high office.
There were also legitimate concerns that the SCAF might fudge the results and install Mr Shafiq as President. But manipulating an election is not that easy — especially not when the numbers have already been leaked and there are too many independent observers. Also, a Shafiq presidency would have earned the military tremendous public wrath that could have led to violence and instability.
For now, it seems like the SCAF chose to play safe and go with Mr Morsi as the President. However, that does not in any way diminish the chances of a showdown between the two parties. Already, a confrontation is brewing with Mr Morsi insisting that he be sworn in by a Parliament that, according to the SCAF, does not even exist. But then again, the Speaker of the House has made clear that he does not consider Parliament to be dissolved and, therefore, will be holding sessions as usual!
The situation remains fluid. The present is still unravelling and it is next to impossible to predict the future. Talks of an ‘Islamist winter’ and a soft coup by the military abound. Many have wondered if Egypt will go back to being a military dictatorship pretending to be a democracy. Others remain more concerned about the kind of governance Mr Morsi will provide. Will he protect Egypt’s Coptic Christians or will he impose shari’ah law that will discriminate against women and religious minorities? Will the Brotherhood form radical alliances with other Islamist groups across the region? Will there be the possibility of war with Israel?
But these are questions for the future. For now, there are more pressing concerns, such as how the new President-elect will even function without a Parliament and a Constitution, or how he will share political space with the military? There is no doubt that both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood need each other for their survival. And while they will do well to learn to live with each other, the judiciary, as the third key player in this situation will also have to act more responsibly. In recent months, it has shown an unending capacity for the imaginative and the ludicrous that has significantly eroded its credibility and rendered it a wild card of sorts.
At this time, anything is possible. There is no definite authoritative figure, no laws, no goals, and no principles — just an open playing field. As a commentator recently observed, the situation in Egypt is akin to a game of Calvinball — the game that has no rules. Introduced by Bill Watterson in his widely popular comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, in this game players make up the rules as they play along. Through the course of the game, players change, goals change, scoring techniques change. To win, the players have to respond quickly, imaginatively and effectively to the ever changing circumstances.
The game sometimes resembles other sports such as football but often turns out to be something entirely different — much like Egypt seems to be in the process of a democratic transition but no one really knows how the ‘revolution’ will actually play out. In the comic strip, a game of Calvinball provides much humour as ball players become spies and spies become double agents with hidden goal posts. The situation in Egypt too would have been rather funny given how power has shifted from Mubarak to the military to Morsi and now may be back to the military. Only, if it had not been so confusing.