Egypt attempts a new transition
The election of Mr Mohammed Morsi marks Egypt’s third attempt at choice of a governance regime in that country in the post-World War Two period. Colonel Nasser’s overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 marked a decisive break with that form of rule, prevalent in some Arab countries, and it initiated a tussle between monarchical rule and republican rule in the Middle East that continues up to the present.
Nasser, while basically ruling from the support of the reorganised armed forces, recognized that the Egyptian people were looking for something more, and attempted to construct a political base standing on an ideology of nationalism that espoused populist rule and liberation of the masses from external economic and political, or as it was called, imperialist, domination.
That formula was followed by the other nationalist parties in various parts of the Middle East. Most demonstrably, in terms of success, was an essentially military-led overthrow of monarchist regimes in Syria and Iraq, inspired however by a civilian nationalist party, the Ba’ath, which has been formally and sometimes in reality under military regimes, and which has ruled in both countries. This was also the case in Iraq until the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and in Syria under the Alawites led in recent times by the Assad family. But the nationalist thrust was interrupted in Iran, when the first attempt at the overthrow of the Shah in 1953 was put down by a de facto United States intervention; a situation eventually reversed with the populist assault by the now ruling theocratic mass political instrument of Ayatollah Khomeni.
More or less immediately after the eventual overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s essentially military administration, and demonstrations inspired by the populist forces that were a combination of young persons and the Muslim Brotherhood subordinated during the Nasser to Mubarak era, it seemed as though a return to democratic governance might be on the cards. But it soon became apparent that the military, while initially conceding the de facto illegitimacy of their regime to the populist forces, once a recalcitrant Mubarak was forced (by a combination of the American government and the military itself) to leave the presidency, have had no intention, if they can avoid it, of fully conceding to democratic rule.
In that context, the victory of Mohamed Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, a third stage in transition to new governance, would now, however, appear to be in something of a halfway house between the military and the representatives of the popular forces.
The announcement, in between the first and the second rounds of balloting, that the military would close the Parliament led by Islamists, put in place a new constitution that stripped the presidency of many of its powers, and reimpose martial law, suggested that they were unwilling to allow the people’s representatives to have full power.
It would not be surprising if the military, no doubt frightened by the possibility that a religion-based party representative, have felt that they are about to experience the recent political history of Iran, now dominated by a virtual theocracy. And in that context, they will probably have had thoughts of initiating a regime not dissimilar to that initiated by another Muslim-majority country, Indonesia, after the fall of Sukarno.
There a quasi-civilian regime was established, but one in fact dominated by the military, until an economic recession precipitated its removal. And the Egyptians will be aware also of the fact that in Burma today, the long-dominant military would appear to be trying to put in place a joint arrangement with the populist forces of Aung San Suu Kyi, as a way of retaining a position of partial power, while appearing to yield to increasingly strong internal and external pressures to remove themselves from office.
The military have, most likely, acted from a conviction that there exists a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood by the more secular forces in the country, and by minority religious groupings, who fear the fate of similar forces in the now theocratically dominated Iran. They may even have been encouraged by the fact that the relative closeness of the election results could induce support for actions that put a curb on full power for Mr Morsi and the Brotherhood and its allies. In the immediate post-election period, Morsi and the Brotherhood would seem to have sought to match such sentiment by seeking to reassure secular groupings and the minority Coptic (Christian) faith following, that they do not intend to go the way of Iran. But at the same time, Morsi has insisted that he must be sworn in before the previously elected Parliament, and not by the Supreme Constitutional Court as proposed by the military.
An interesting question as it pertains to what could arise out of this incipient stand-off, is the position of the United States. President Obama, as one of his first external acts on assumption of office, and well before signs of the overthrow of Mubarak, made a much applauded speech, originally billed as “a major speech to the Muslim world,” stressing the virtues of making an effective transition to democracy. Undoubtedly the President was not only speaking to the various authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, whether monarchical or military, but to the Egyptian leaders themselves, aware, as United States governments have been of the extent of corruption of the Mubarak regime. He would have been aware too, of the skepticism of onlookers from other countries cognisant of the extent of military and economic aid received by the Mubarak regime from the United States.
But Mr Obama was also speaking to a wider audience, seeking to convince his listeners that there can be an alternative to military dictatorship, or military-supported monarchies, other than the Iran model. It is certainly from that perspective too, that his government subsequently acted to pressure Mubarak out of office, on the basis of course, that the military would momentarily hold the balance of power.
Now the American government will be seeking to pressure the military to concede to the Muslim Brotherhood’s demands that Mr Morsi assume the presidency with its full powers and the full powers of the Parliament under the unabridged Egyptian Constitution. But they will surely be pressing Morsi and the Brotherhood for some concessions, taking advantage, they will believe, that the new President is one who, having lived in the United States, understands their way of doing things. And they will have to be making a critical judgement as to how much Morsi can concede without causing a fracture in the Brotherhood at this time, while seeking to ensure that the military will retain an influence consonant with its support for what has been since the days of President Sadat, a de facto political alliance between the United States and Egypt.