Last week saw the beginning of a head-on clash between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood. The rift is so deep it threatens the smooth transfer of power from the army to civilian institutions. It could further harm an economy which is already in dire straits and possibly trigger a show of force.
The announcement of the candidacy Kheirat elShater, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood’s economic empire, as candidate for the presidency of Egypt has shocked many Egyptians and certainly the generals of Supreme Council of the Armed forces, the SCAF. The Supreme Council was already on the road to collision with the Brothers on several important issues. Elshater’s nomination gave the generals the ultimate proof that the Brothers wanted to take over all power bases in the new regime and thus end the independence and the immunity that the army is trying to assure for itself after the transitional period and its returns to its barracks.
Ever since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster it was generally understood that there had been some kind of understanding between the army and the Brothers. The generals, accepting the fact that the Brotherhood was the main political force that would rule Egypt in the forthcoming years, were keen to make a deal. The army would retain its special status and its immunity under the new regime – and, in return, it would support the Brotherhood and let them draw up the new constitutional framework. Only thus, explained political pundits, could the army retain its economic empire and escape accountability for what it had done during the Mubarak years. Many developments appeared to confirm this interpretation. Drafting the transition constitution was left to a committee comprised largely of Islamists. When it was submitted to a referendum, the Brothers campaigned so vigorously in its favor that 77% approved of it, thus giving the army an important propaganda victory. The timetable for elections set down in that constitution was thought to favor the Brothers, and they refrained from taking part in many of the subsequent mass demonstrations in Tahrir square.
Suddenly, all this has changed. The Brothers now have 47% of the seats in the new parliament and with the Salafists can muster nearly three quarters. They are now flexing their muscles. They want the Ganzouri government to resign and threaten to pass a no confidence motion. And they have the votes to do it. The parliament has already blamed the government for the sorry economic situation. A communiqué issued by the Brothers accuses the SCAF-appointed government of attempting, at its bidding, to tamper with the results of the referendum on the constitution and of the presidential election. These are very serious allegations which the army angrily refuted with a communiqué. Had the army not made it possible to hold the free and fair elections that gave the Brotherhood its majority in the parliament? There was no cause to doubt the fairness and honesty of the army and the SCAF and to question the loyalty of the government or the independence of the Supreme Court which is in charge of supervising the elections.
The fact is that, according to the transition constitution, which the Brothers supported and voted for, the army holds executive and legislative powers until a president has been elected. The parliament has no real power. This is especially galling for the Islamists who insist on their right to criticize national institutions. The Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badi’e proclaimed that the government had to be dismissed forthwith. “There is no honeymoon between us and the SCAF since we never got married,” he said bluntly, hinting that no deal had been struck with the army and that since he was the leader of the majority party in parliament he had every right to confront the army.
While the issue is as yet unresolved, another crisis is looming regarding the composition of the special council tasked with drafting the constitution. The parliament decided that half of the 100 delegates would come from the lower and upper houses, and the other half would be chosen among leading civilian figures from all walks of life, such a s members of trade unions and members the university community. One should remember that the Brothers and the Salafists now hold 73% of the seats in the lower house and 85% in the upper house. This means that 75% of the delegates chosen were Islamists with only 6 women and a handful of Copts (though Copts make up 10 to 12% of the population). This was clearly a blueprint for a thoroughly Islamic constitution, something which apparently was intolerable for non-Islamic members of society at large. Twenty-five of the chosen delegates – the representative of Al Azhar included – did not attend the first session of the council. Six resigned completely as well as a small representation of the Copts. A complaint was then submitted to the Supreme Court demanding that the committee be disbanded. The court postponed hearings until April 10, in the hope that a compromise might be found. The army is doing its best to encourage such a compromise, but this prospect does not seem likely at the moment. Secular and liberal forces are all too aware that this is their very last opportunity to stop the wave of radical Islam threatening to engulf the country and turn it into an Islamic dictatorship.
And if that were not enough, the Brotherhood reversed its position. Formerly, they had always said they would not back a candidate of their own for the presidency in order not to frighten local and international public opinion. They had stated that they would only field parliamentary candidates in 30% of the districts – but then changed their minds and carried a large majority. Now that the prize- the presidency – seems within reach, they have dropped all pretence of moderation and restraint. The vote in the Magles elShura, their internal parliament, – 56 in favor and 52 against – shows that many of them were not comfortable with that decision. In addition to the question of credibility the Brotherhood’s candidate will have to share the people’s vote with three other Islamic candidates who are already in the race and enjoy considerable popularity.
The SCAF, confronted with the growing Brothers’ challenge and the accusation of maneuvering to remain in power, tried an interesting ploy. On 27 March, General Mahmud Nasser, a highly respected member of SCAF, gave an informal briefing to a select number of media representatives and public figures. He came to the meeting with nine power point screens and a book of 243 pages containing the sad statistics of the Egyptian economy. He had harsh words for the masses and for the first time gave some insight to the economic sphere of the army. “Why aren’t they working instead of protesting?” he asked. Have they forgotten how to earn their food? He also wondered how fair elections could be held when hungry people might start a new revolution. Economic growth for 2011-2012 had been a dismal 0.6%; foreign currency holdings had dropped from 35 to 15 billion dollars; a further 12 billion dollars of private funds had fled the country. Traditional allies were reluctant to help. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, fuming at the treatment meted to their longtime ally, Mubarak, were making their help conditional on political demands. Though the International Monetary Fund was about to grant a 3.2 billion dollar loan, this would not solve the problem as long as protests and strikes paralyzed the economy.
In contrast, the general unveiled the secret of the army’s economic activities and extolled its tireless efforts to improve and develop the many companies it owns, which brought a profit of more than one billion dollars over the last ten years. He pointed out that, thanks to these revenues, the budget of the army is a mere 4.8% of the country’s budget, far less that would be the case otherwise. Moreover the army tried to help by lending nearly 2 billion dollars to the government, and selling its food and clothing surpluses at reduced prices to the population, thereby easing its plight. This was the first time the usually close mouthed army had disclosed the extent of its economic activities, and what is very important, it made it clear that it would fight to protect what it had so carefully built up over the years.
It looks now as if battle lines have been drawn. Whether cooler minds on both sides will prevail and a reasonable compromise can be reached is the question of the moment.
Zvi Mazel is an Arabist. He was Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, Sweden, and Romania. He is a Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.