The two best organized forces in Egypt today remain the military and Islamist organizations. They have been quite successful in leveraging their advanced organization to assert control of the government from the day dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed aside on February 11, 2011.
The country’s largest Islamist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), already controlling a near majority of parliament, is currently facing criticisms that it disproportionately appointed 65 supporters to a small committee of 100 charged with writing a new constitution to be submitted for approval in a June referendum. Already, around two dozen delegates have resigned in protest, charging that the committee is stacked and unrepresentative. This leaves, for example, only five women in the mix.
Nonetheless, in apparent disregard of these criticisms that it is making a power grab, the MB just announced its selection of a millionaire businessman as its presidential candidate for the scheduled May national election.
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Previously, the Brotherhood sternly rejected any suggestion that it was planning to launch a presidential run, reassuring critics that it was willing to share power.
But now, if its presidential gambit is successful, it will virtually control all chambers of the government. There are significant problems with this scenario, chief of which is that an Islamist-dominated government will not be credible to major sections of the population.
Increasing these fears, “the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for the Egyptian presidency, Khairat al-Shater, declared,” as reported on April 4 by Reuters, “that introducing sharia law would be his ‘first and final’ objective if he wins.”
This pitch will certainly not go over too well. The scent of democracy from the January 25, 2011 start of the 18-day revolution is still too fresh in people’s mind.
“We fought for a civil society,” as a founding member of a small, new organization, Women for Change, told me this past January during a massive protest in Tahrir Square, “and now we have the military running the government and the Islamists running the parliament. Neither of them are civil organizations.”
The abrupt shift by the MB to run a presidential candidate appears to be an attempt to avoid being outflanked after at least two other Islamist presidential candidates threw their hats into the ring, one of whom is an expelled former leader of the Brotherhood. It may also be the MB flexing its muscle after weeks of wrangling over how much control the military Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would exercise versus the MB-dominated parliament.
But the military is far more dangerous than the expressed concerns of the Brotherhood whose criticisms amount to little more than political jockeying by government insiders. In fact, the MB has, from the day Mubarak resigned, urged support to the military, urged an end to protests and urged a return to work by strikers.
While they are subject to pressure from their mass base in the impoverished sectors, the MB does not support an increase in the minimum wage, does not support forming independent unions and does not support protests of youth and women for an immediate end to military rule and for expansion of democratic rights.
No legislation has been enacted by the parliament dominated by the MB on any of these critical issues. Instead, we are treated to shallow political maneuvers between the two best organized political forces in the country – the military, the Brotherhood and the more extreme orthodox Muslims, popularly called Salafists, who themselves control another 20 per cent of both houses of parliament.
While the military desperately wants to return to the more discreet backstage role it played under Mubarak, it is impossible to conceive that it will give up any of its real power without a genuine revolution challenging its substantial control and secretive ownership of the economy, estimated to be as much as one-third of national production.
This challenge can only come from a rebellious mass reform movement and not from the conciliatory MB.
Military Seeks Allies to Rule
In quick succession after Mubarak fell, the constitution was suspended, the cabinet dismissed, the parliament and local municipal committees dissolved and the ruling National Democratic Party outlawed.
Mubarak’s despotic regime was exposed as little more than a thin, corrupt social layer of family and friends. The whole decayed structure crumbled under pressure of a massive popular explosion lasting only a few weeks.
As the lone surviving Mubarak-era institution, the military uniquely enjoyed mass support because it never directly attacked the people. This dreadful role was left to the Ministry of Interior, employing one million to do its dirty work.
In addition, rather quickly, the military proved to be far more politically adept than their impervious, imperial benefactor who was banished to his presidential vacation compound, soon to be placed under arrest with his two sons.
For example, the military moved immediately to appease mass sentiment by welcoming back dissident exiles, releasing political prisoners and arresting some of the most corrupt business and political figures.
Its most profound political initiative, however, was orchestrating a partnership with the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably Egypt’s most popular mass organization. The Brotherhood consistently provided charity and religious instruction during its 84-year history while it often, at the same time, endured government repression.
As a result, it earned genuine mass support among the people.
While other organizations and institutions established by Mubarak were discredited as cronies of the dictatorship, the MB was deemed by SCAF as the safest and most credible partner in reestablishing institutions of parliament, reforming the police, restructuring the courts and rewriting a new constitution, all designed to safeguard essential aspects of the status quo.
The army was now thrust for the first time into a very public role of running the whole government and they desperately sought, and succeeded, in gaining a powerful new ally in the Brotherhood.
But, after only one year in power, it can now be clearly stated that the substantial credibility of the governing SCAF has been spent. An estimated 12,000 political prisoners have been brought before impromptu military courts in the last year, more than during the entire 29-year reign of Mubarak. And, more protestors have been killed by the army and police in the last year than during the bloody rebellion of 2011.
Nonetheless, despite this failed record, the military remains firmly in control, absent a well organized mass opposition of youth and workers who led the original revolt. Repressive dictatorships like Mubarak’s are hardly conducive for building independent organizations of struggle or of schooling organizers.
The largely underground Brotherhood was an exception. It survived and even thrived. Thus, it enjoys enormous organizational advantage over its political opponents among the revolutionary youth and insurgent workers’ movement who were severely repressed under the dictatorship and, consequently, are now forced to build new organizations from scratch with untrained cadre whose unabashed courage far exceeds their modest experience.
But, along with these weaknesses among the opposition, there are also numerous political obstacles to continued military and Muslim Brotherhood domination. As previously indicated, the military has lost much of its credibility and the Brotherhood faces lots of opposition to its political monopoly.
Nonetheless, it must clearly be recognized that the Brotherhood and the army remain the best organized political forces in the country with nobody currently positioned to take their place.
Unless and until the revolutionary youth of January 25 and newly formed independent unions get organized to the same level and begin to coordinate their mass appeals for basic democratic and economic reforms, the political initiative and advantage will remain in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood and military whose wrangling does nothing to improve the lives of millions who so desperately seek a new Egypt.
This article is adapted from a talk given at the Howard Zinn Memorial Lecture Series in Boston and will appear in the April 18 edition of The Boston Occupier.