Brotherhood, SCAF, and US: The Three Way Tango
By: Nasser Charara
Published Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the coterie of top military decision-makers have been bracing for their impending cohabitation and are making plans to sit tight with the world’s big players.
India is described as the world’s largest democracy. By the same numerical token, Egypt is now the Middle East’s largest democracy.
This is not easy for Israel to swallow. Ever since it was invented, it has invested heavily in the notion that it is the only democracy in the region. Before he became prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu wrote a book called A Place Under the Sun, which maintained that the reason for the absence of peace with the Arabs was that their regimes are not democratic like Israel’s. Netanyahu always considered this book to be his credo. Today, his supporters apply to it the aphorism “be careful what you wish for.”
Shortly before the fall of Hosni Mubarak, The Muslim Brotherhood pledged to the US administration that it would not obtain a majority in new parliamentary elections or compete for the post of president. This came in response to a hurried visit which Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made to the US. He went to present the administration at the highest level with a bottom-line Israeli demand: to ensure the survival of the Camp David treaty before the Egyptian regime collapsed.
The assessment in both Tel Aviv and Washington at the time was that what was happening in Egypt was, in part, a military coup against Mubarak. A re-examination of the country’s political forces was undertaken during the course of what the Israelis described as US President Barack Obama’s “betrayal” of Mubarak.
The military is the pre-eminent social and national force in Egypt, and it controls around 30 percent of the economy. Its move against Mubarak was attributed to his having defied the institution which made him president in the first place. He wanted his son Gamal to inherit the post in alliance with pro-regime businessmen. The army regarded this as a transgression by Mubarak against its self-endowed right to select the president’s successor.
What is commonly termed “the apparatus” – the tight coterie of officers that controls the military – wanted to pick another candidate from the air force, which it scrutinizes closely. Mubarak had been groomed for the presidency through promotion in the air force, from pilot to head of weapons procurement to commander. Ahmad Shafik’s air force background was key to his being chosen as prime minister in response to the popular uprising against Mubarak, and then as a serious candidate to contest the presidential elections.
The army has frequently been haunted by fears of Washington doing a deal behind its back to hand power in Egypt over to the Brotherhood.
This predates the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution in January last year. Months earlier, Obama had asked for Muslim Brotherhood figures to be invited to attend his famous speech at Cairo University. This fuelled talk in military circles that a new US policy of mending fences with former foes – which had got the Obama administration talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan – was being secretly applied by the State Department to the Islamists in Egypt with the president’s backing.
At one point, after the revolution, the army decided to send a warning to Washington. It sought to signal that if rumors of a deal with the Brotherhood were true, its own reliability as a US ally could not be taken for granted. It did so by authorizing the passage of an Iranian naval vessel through the Suez Canal. The intended message, according to Egyptian military sources, was that “we are not without other options.”
But the silent clash of wills between the Obama administration and the powers-that-be within the Egyptian military ended with the latter getting their arms twisted.
According to high-level sources in the army, the top brass concluded early this year that it would be impossible to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood – as the only organized nationwide force on the fragmented political scene, with an electoral base of millions – from gaining power.
They also assessed that it would be hard to disrupt the dialogue between the Brotherhood and the US, which has been discreetly underway for years.
However, the conclusion was also reached that the Brotherhood would take a cautious approach to exercising power, as part of a long-term strategy aimed at retaining it.
The Brotherhood’s blueprint in this regard is drawn from the experience of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the approach of its prime minister, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, and foreign minister, Ahmet Davetoglu.
After Erdogan first won office he focused on taking economic measures that resulted in improved living standards for large sections of the population, which were key to his party later securing repeated re-election. The Egyptian Brotherhood believes it can also hold on to power once it gains it by doing the same.
Davetoglu introduced a policy of “zero problems” in regional and international relations, which, until recently, made Turkey’s neighbors and the international community back the AKP’s retention of power. The Brothers will surely seek to do likewise in Egypt, which among other things would mean holding on to Camp David, reassuring the West, and also not antagonizing Iran.
The army had different ideas about the management of Egypt’s post-Mubarak regional and international relations. These entailed adherence to Camp David, but not gratuitously. Thus, for example, the politically-motivated Mubarak-era deal under which Israel was sold cut-price Egyptian natural gas would not be allowed to stand. Egypt would also start demanding that Israel comply with the unimplemented part of the peace agreement relating to negotiations with the Palestinians.
It is not clear whether the Brotherhood will itself adopt the military’s proposed approach to preserving the peace treaty. At a recent meeting behind closed doors in Tunisia, an Egyptian Brotherhood envoy told representatives of other key groups in the region that Camp David is not a priority at present, as the Brotherhood’s focus is on establishing its hold on power.
A parallel conclusion reached by Egypt’s military decision-makers was that the Brotherhood is likely to avoid provoking Egyptian society. It might invoke religious justifications for tolerating proscribed practices, such as the sale and serving of alcohol. It would only prohibit them at its own institutions. Likewise, it would not seek to regulate tourism establishments, other than its own.
A similarly pragmatic attitude was anticipated in dealing with Western aid donors. In short, the military expects the Brotherhood to undergo a process of acclimatizing to Egyptian reality, and to take a gradual approach to stamping its mark on it.
The Brotherhood is not unduly worried that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has restricted the powers of the office of president. It sees the Constitutional Declaration it issued in this regard as the product of the balance of power at a certain point in time, which can be amended when the balance shifts. And they are confident that their political star is on the ascent.
In seeking to emulate the experience of their Turkish counterparts, the Brothers know they need to oversee tangible economic improvements as key to retaining power. They are aware that there are no ready policy prescriptions, given the big social, economic and political differences between Turkey when Erdogan took office and Egypt now. But they will adopt whatever features they can, including a “zero problems” approach both to international and regional relations, and to those sectors of Egyptian society which take a different view of life to them.
The SCAF tried to use the hold-up in the announcement of the final result of the presidential run-off to see if a last-minute bid to prevent the Brotherhood from coming to power might get international support – or failing that, whether a deal could be brokered to keep political decision-making in its hands while the Islamists take charge of social affairs.
It would appear in theory that the army has at least partly succeeded in getting its way. But that will not last long. The Brotherhood will insist on recovering its parliamentary majority and on the annulment of the Supplementary Constitutional Declaration.
It evidently has Western support for this. Diplomats revealed that Western pressure was exerted on the SCAF to stop dragging its feet and announce the election results.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.