It is undoubtedly the case that the essential structures of authoritarian rule, using the army as a critical instrument of stabilization, were constructed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, in his long period of domination following the military’s abolition of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and his takeover of the presidency of the country from General Naguib in 1956. And it is the case too, that Nasser immediately sought to present a nationalist and populist face within and outside of the country, predominantly through an effort signified by his seizure of the British-French controlled Suez Canal, in July of that year.
Nasser’s military successor, Anwar Sadat sought to enhance his political credentials in the Western world by seeking to normalize relations with Israel, an orientation pleasing to the United States. But his assassination, in 1981, was the result of an Islamist backlash against the Camp David Accords.
Yet, Sadat’s successor General and then President Mubarak succeeded, in the tradition of military rule in partially stifling the new generation, even in the face of political stirrings elsewhere in the Middle East, and in particular the rise of a new nationalist regime in Iran, now appearing as a competitor to Egypt in terms of gathering the attraction of militants in the wider Middle East.
It was, no doubt, a certain recognition of that persistent turning of the political soil in the area that came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring,’ that induced President Obama, taking advantage of his own partial Muslim heritage, to make, early in his first government, a major address in Cairo itself, giving legitimacy to the concept, and seeking to influence Arab leaderships to recognize the necessity for a degree of democratization of their states.
Obama recognized that in order to diplomatically combat the influence of Iran in the region, the alternative, particularly in a key state like Egypt, could not be constructed on the basis of military rule, essentially shorn of the nationalist credentials bequeathed to it by Nasser.
Obama recognized too, that in order to come to terms with the regime in Iran, the US would have to redefine its posture essentially away from an alliance with military and monarchist rulers. This, in the American view, was aggravating what he called, in his speech in Cairo in 2009 “a time of tension between the US and Muslims around the world,” a situation which, he argued, required a “new beginning between the US and Muslims.”
It is therefore not overstating the case if we say that the United States was not entirely displeased with the domestic protests, characterized by the presence of large numbers of young Egyptians, later joined by the traditionally suppressed Muslim Brotherhood, that led eventually to President Mubarak’s resignation in early February 2011, after his thirty years of rule. But as usual in such cases, there was really no constitutional apparatus that could permit immediate succession by a democratically elected government.
The claim to immediate inheritance naturally therefore fell to the military leadership of the state, a grouping already having well ensconced itself and profited from the long years of its key location in the post-Nasser autocratic systems. But the difference on this occasion was that the military leadership was well aware of the critical role of the Muslim Brotherhood, a grouping claiming to have the legitimacy for the construction of a state along religious lines, not unlike what had transpired in Iran. And in that context, the military recognized too, that the old type of regime, in which it constituted the base no matter what elections were held, would have to cede to something else.
The fact that, in the elections held, the Muslim Brotherhood attained dominance, probably led the Brotherhood to believe that electoral supremacy could, and should, be translated into the sole supremacy of themselves. No doubt they felt that the Iranian model could be transferred to themselves alone; and indeed they seemed to feel that the early complaints, not simply of the military, but of the younger generation and the upper economic classes which had supported the anti-Mubarak uprising, could be brushed aside.
From that critical error, came the military’s opportunity to sustain a substantial measure of influence in the country’s political arrangements, by supporting the increasing opposition to the monopolistic behaviour of Brotherhood. And the fact that the civilian opposition seems to have felt that the Brotherhood could not be constrained without the assistance of the military, has led to the establishment of a regime, constitutional in form, though military-dominated in reality.
But the psychological effects of the popular participation in legitimating the military’s overthrow of the Mubarak regime, and now the regime of the Brotherhood, suggest that the popular forces will not long concede to a system with a civilian face but a military underpinning.
Nor would the United States government, happy though it might be at the current eclipse of the Brotherhood signified by the imprisonment of elected President Morsi, wish to be seen to be once again supporting a revised version of military domination in Egypt.
How, on the other hand, a constitutional government can be formed while the Brotherhood leadership, which only recently demonstrably had the support of the popular will, is constrained from effectively partaking in new electoral arrangements, is a major problem to be resolved by the US and its Middle Eastern allies who have now already promised billions of dollars to the temporary government.
We can assume that, in spite of the formation of an apparently civilian regime, the US will in the forseeable future, be seeking to elicit what terms the military will accept, and whether those terms will be enough to satisfy a turbulent young population liberated from the Brotherhood’s sole rule, but still wanting some form of democratic government in Egypt.