As young revolutionaries once again battle Egyptian security forces in Tahrir Square, only one group stands to emerge victorious from the melee: the Islamist cadres of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Although the current violence has pitted revolutionary youth against the army, the real tussle is between the Brotherhood and the council of generals that is now ruling the country. Unable to think strategically, and (mercifully) unwilling to murder thousands, the generals have been outfoxed by the Islamists.
While the youth rage, and the military dithers, the Brothers advance step by step toward victory in elections that started Monday. The Islamists know that, irrespective of how the violence ends, the legitimacy bestowed by an election is the ticket to power in Egypt in the near term. And they believe that this legitimacy will enable them to curb the power of the army in the longer run.
The current round of violence was triggered by a massive Islamist demonstration a week ago Friday in Tahrir Square (which deteriorated after the army clashed with revolutionary youth who subsequently poured into the square).
The Muslim Brotherhood had called for the demonstration weeks earlier as a warning to the generals not to interfere with the elections. The generals – known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF – were not always at loggerheads with the Brotherhood. Shortly after the Tahrir Square revolution, the Brotherhood made a quiet deal with the SCAF to leave each other alone.
The SCAF expected that the Islamists wouldn’t object if the generals retained their perks and powers after the voting. The Brotherhood had pledged to contest only 30 percent of the seats, and didn’t seem like a daunting threat. Instead, the SCAF turned against secular opposition groups – including revolutionary youth. It distrusted the seculars because it feared it couldn’t control them. Many of the youth were beaten up or hauled before military tribunals, and human-rights groups were threatened with lawsuits. The warmth that the revolutionary youth had felt for the army rapidly vanished.
Meantime, the political situation on the ground developed differently than what the army had foreseen. As expected, liberal and social democratic parties proved unable to organize. But far more problematic from the military’s point of view, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its long-honed network of followers and a reputation for providing social services, proved stronger than expected.
The Brotherhood fielded the Freedom and Justice Party, which planned to contend for 70 percent to 90 percent of the seats. Moreover, hard-line Salafi Islamists, abandoning their previous rejection of elections, organized four political parties that joined in a coalition and proved adept at grassroots campaigning.
Although they dislike each other, the Brotherhood and the Salafis together could win a majority. Moreover, the newly elected parliament will be designated to pick 100 people to write a new constitution, so an Islamist victory could influence Egypt for decades to come.
Now nervous about the Islamists’ growing power, the military made a clumsy attempt nearly a month ago to put forward a set of extra-constitutional principles to restrain them. The principles would have ruled out future civilian control over the army — and the SCAF indicated that it wanted to keep ruling until the middle of 2013.
Furthermore, in a move that infuriated Islamists, control of the 100-person constitutional drafting committee would have been removed from the newly elected parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood immediately called for the huge demonstration. Within 24 hours, the SCAF backtracked, but the demonstration went forward anyway. Then, having shown its strength, the Brotherhood went home and left the liberals and the army to savage each other in Tahrir Square.
Now, the SCAF is backtracking further; It has promised to hold presidential elections by July and to provide a faster transfer to civilian power. These are necessary moves, but they come very late.
The popularity of the military, the country’s strongest institution, was once sky-high, but is rapidly declining. The SCAF cannot restore its position by greater use of force, nor would U.S. intervention (for or against the SCAF) be useful. Egypt is not Syria; the military’s honor is based on its refusal to fire on civilians. A bloody crackdown would likely lead to a rebellion within its ranks and would turn most Egyptians against it.
To retain its waning clout, the military must move forward with elections (to delay them would cause a further explosion of violence). And it must transition to a civilian government as soon as possible – no matter who wins the ballot. The Egyptian revolution – dogged by SCAF and liberal failures – must be played out until the end.
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