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Stanford scholar comments on Egypt's interrupted revolution

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An artist paints a mural depicting the faces of former president Hosni Mubarak and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi on the edge of Cairo’s Tahrir Square on May 22, 2012. Half the face is of the ousted president juxtaposed to the other portion showing Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years.
Photo credit: 
Suhaib Salem/Reuters

In less than a week, Egypt has witnessed a reversal of many of the gains it made during the course of the 16-month revolutionary period. The interim military body guiding the transition period since Hosni Mubarak's ouster has consolidated its power by dissolving the Islamist-led parliament, introducing a new charter stripping presidential powers, and hand-picking an assembly to draft a new constitution.

In the midst of this counter-coup by Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), presidential run-off elections took place June 16 and 17. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammad Mursi emerged as the winner against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister, capturing 51.7% of the vote.

A former academic who earned a doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California, Mursi is a relative newcomer to the Egyptian political scene having served in parliament from 2000-2005. Described as a behind-the-scenes operator, Mursi rose to lead the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in 2011 positioning himself as a presidential contender. While little is known about Egypt's first democratically elected president, many claim that Mursi was elected less for his personal politics than for his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Lina Khatib, head of the Arab Reform and Democracy Program at FSI's Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, weighs in on the upheaval in Egypt's revolution, the power of the presidency, and the steps the SCAF have taken to cement their rule.

Have the SCAF outsmarted the opposition in their recent grab for power?

Looking back at the 16 months since the start of the Egyptian revolution, it becomes clear that the SCAF were hedging their bets to come up with a political formula that would guarantee the continuation of their political and economic authority. For a while the Muslim Brotherhood was almost in bed with the SCAF, but the equation quickly changed after the parliamentary elections. As the Brotherhood arose as a potentially serious challenger to the SCAF, the military needed an effective strategy to undermine its rising power.

In what way was the Muslim Brotherhood posing a challenge to the SCAF?

The (now-dissolved) parliament was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which claimed 46% of the seats. With Mohammad Mursi the president-elect, the Muslim Brotherhood would have presided over two key state institutions - the legislative and executive branches. That would have been too much for the SCAF to bear, particularly as they started perceiving the Brotherhood as a political competitor. Based on this, the SCAF could safely calculate that fresh parliamentary elections — under a revised electoral system — would most likely not lead to a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament.

With no constitution in place how can the presidential powers and limits be defined?

The stalled process of putting together a Constitutional Assembly means that Mohammad Mursi assumes this role without knowing the full authorities of the position. The SCAF have been managing the membership of the Constitutional Assembly and will likely have a significant input into the content of the constitution itself. The sequencing of having a president in place before a constitution is drafted presents the military with the opportunity to design the constitution according to who wins the presidential race. If Ahmed Shafiq had won, it is likely that the new constitution would have given him more privileges than Mursi.

With Mursi the new president of Egypt, does this signal a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood?

The Muslim Brotherhood has been shortsighted in the way it has performed since the start of the Egyptian revolution. Its keenness on ascending to political power often led it to engage in compromises with the SCAF that have now backfired. This also served to lessen its support among the Egyptian people, as well as among its political allies. Although the Brotherhood pushed for the presidential elections to go ahead because it was convinced that Mursi would win, this victory can be viewed as only a partial one as the SCAF are in control of most state institutions.

Have recent events reversed the gains made by the revolution?

The real victory for Mursi would be if he is able to put in place checks and balances on the power of the SCAF, secure the independence of the judiciary, guarantee the rights of minorities, and establish an accountable civil state in Egypt that involves the country’s multiple stakeholders. However, the SCAF have so far blocked the path towards achieving all of those goals, and in the process are attempting to silence the voices of the opposition that were initially empowered by the revolution.

How can reformers re-assert themselves in the current political climate?

Egyptian reformists need a long-term strategy. A key part of this strategy is having a viable leadership and advocacy structure that can stand up to the authority of the SCAF. Even though the SCAF have announced that they would hand over power to the incumbent president, their behavior indicates that they are keen on maintaining their authority behind the scenes, regardless of who sits in the presidential seat.