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Why a Presidential 'Win' for Ahmed Shafiq Might Re-Energise the Egyptian Revolution

Commentary, 22 June 2012
Middle East and North Africa
A win for Ahmed Shafiq as Egyptian President will be seen as a last desperate attempt by the remnants of the Mubarak regime to cling on to power. It may also re-energise the Egyptian revolution as the Muslim Brotherhood re-aligns itself with protestors, rather than the establishment.

A win for Ahmed Shafiq as Egyptian President will be seen as a last desperate attempt by the remnants of the Mubarak regime to cling on to power. It may also re-energise the Egyptian revolution as the Muslim Brotherhood re-aligns itself with protestors, rather than the establishment.

By Nour Bakr for RUSI.org

Egyptian revolution 

22/06/12 - In its current state, it is increasingly difficult to recall Egypt as the stable, assured political presence it was widely recognised as not so long ago. The revolutionary aims of the country's initial uprising have long since been thwarted by an incumbent political and military elite staunchly holding the fort of the Mubarak regime. Vastly politically experienced, the 19 member Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has consistently withheld Egypt's democratic experiment from moving entirely beyond its grasp.

With the unprecedented electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood, the regime's' fight for survival amongst shifting tides has grown increasingly bold and desperate. With the victory of the Brotherhood's candidate over Mubarak's former Prime Minister all but confirmed, attempts by SCAF to undermine this outcome are likely, if successful, to throw the country into further turmoil and unrest.

The threat of Civil War ?

The victory of a popular Islamist party in the first round of Algeria's own parliamentary elections in 1991 triggered a swift, unflinching response from the ruling military regime whose brief flirtation with democracy threatened to actually produce a democratically elected legislature. The regime's cancellation of the elections followed by its outlawing of the victorious Islamic Salvation Front provoked the commencement of the 1992 civil war.

The current situation in Egypt exhibits some vital differences from that of its neighbour which have thus far prevented it treading a similar path. The Muslim Brotherhood is an Islamically conservative, politically pragmatic organisation which has long been a constituent part of Egypt's political landscape. Although historically side-lined and persecuted by the Mubarak regime, it has remained distinct from the country's more radical, fundamentalist Islamist forces. Its modus operandi is perhaps best described as a kind of soft Islamism, dedicated to long term reform and transition through legal and political means.

Both its survival and success since the beginning of the uprising have been predicated upon its willingness and ability to prioritise ends over means. Its policy with regards to the regime and revolution has been one of favouring a longer-term, more gradual transition rather than the complete and immediate overthrow favoured by the country's revolutionary forces. This allowed something of an unspoken deal to be agreed between itself and the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. The deal was based on assurances that SCAF would not interfere in the event that the Brotherhood were victorious in the parliamentary elections. In return the Brotherhood signed up to the military council's transitional plan as well as pledging not to field a candidate for the presidency.

The current crisis over the presidency and parliament is a direct offshoot of the breakdown of the deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and Military Council. The former has been continually frustrated at the lack of power its dominance over the country's legislature has afforded it. The Brotherhood's decision to renege on its pledge not to field a presidential candidate was a public testimony to the continued dominance of the military over the country's political affairs. The tragic flaw of Brotherhood's gradualist approach to the Egyptian revolution has been that it has served to gift the regime greater time to consolidate its own position.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of the Brotherhood-Regime power dynamic which once characterised domestic politics under Hosni Mubarak. Determined not to allow the Muslim Brotherhood a monopoly over both the parliament and presidency, the dissolution of parliament was quickly followed by the announcement of a constitutional amendment granting the SCAF legislative powers in the event that parliament is dissolved. The move was something of a safety measure for the regime in the increasingly likely event that Morsi is confirmed as president. If SCAF must concede the presidency, it is prepared to simply take the legislature instead as part of a zero-sum game with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Members of the Brotherhood themselves have been quick to dismiss any suggestions that a scenario reminiscent of Algeria '92 is likely to occur in Egypt. Tellingly, Saad el-Katatni, who served for the Brotherhood as speaker of parliament before its dissolution, categorised the uprising as a 'legal struggle via the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets'. It is this dichotomy, with the Muslim Brotherhood championing the former and the revolutionary forces the latter, which has splintered the uprising and drowned out the voices of those such as Egypt's liberals who sit somewhere in between the two.

New president, same old politics

Whilst the likeliness of a descent into violent conflict is very slim, the threat of state sponsored violence nevertheless remains consistent. The election of either candidate is unlikely to appease the political unrest currently engulfing the country.

The candidacy, let alone potential victory of Ahmed Shafiq the last serving prime minister under Mubarak, sparked almost universal outrage. A bulwark of the former regime, his election would be perhaps a definitive symbolic blow to Egypt's already faltering revolution. The Brotherhood's own projected results for the outcome of the election were in broad agreement with those of local media and independent observers in placing Mohammed Morsi as the winner. Nevertheless the decision by the Presidential Election Commission to delay the announcement of the result has once again cast a shadow of uncertainty over proceedings. If after hearing the raft of appeals, the commission rules in favour of Shafiq, the Brotherhood alongside a number of other political forces will step up their level of protest. The danger for the SCAF is that such an outcome could jolt the Muslim Brotherhood into the realisation that their pragmatic approach is far too familiar to a regime wise to the Brotherhood's ultimate aim of removing it from power.

Perhaps more important than the result itself will be the political fallout from either outcome. A  victory for Morsi, while symbolic, will be severely limited by the constitutional declaration set out recently by the Military council. In tandem with SCAF's extension of its own powers over the legislature and a judiciary virtually unchanged from the Mubarak era, the ability of an incoming president to act against the status quo is minimal. These timely moves have ensured that the Brotherhood's renegement on their pledge, for which they bore widespread criticism, was ultimately in vain.

The best outcome for the country will be if Shafiq, not Morsi, wins the presidency. The cumulative effect of the flurry of conspicuous court rulings, constitutional declarations and a Shafiq presidency could perhaps reinvigorate the faltering revolution. A number of parties, including the Brotherhood itself, have already announced they will return to Tahrir to protest the countless farces of the SCAF led democratic transition. Ironically it is the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood's legal and political approach which may, of necessity, bring them closer to Egypt's revolutionary forces and allow for a level of political unity amongst opposition which has been largely absent since the early days of the uprising.

Nour Bakr is a British-Egyptian freelance writer on Middle Eastern Politics. He is currently an associate editor with the digital newspaper, Your Middle East, as well as a regular contributor on Egyptian politics.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

Photo: Egyptian Independent/Reuters

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