Watch along the Nile

Friday, October 26, 2012

After the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate triumphed in the presidential election, Egyptian history can be said to have closed a circle. This “Second Republic” marks a return to that tumultuous time six decades ago when the military officers overthrew the monarchy in 1952 and announced the birth of a new order.

Two forces inherited the wreckage of the Egyptian monarchy: the officer corps and the Muslim Brotherhood. For a fleeting moment, the Brothers thought the men in uniform were their allies. They dubbed the military seizure “the blessed movement.” But the coup makers had a different script in mind. The Muslim Brotherhood would come in for decades of repression.

Now Mohammed Morsi is his country’s first civilian president. Ever since its founding in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood yearned for power as it ran afoul of the authoritarian state. Its adherents dreamt of and agitated for an Islamic state even as its sly leaders understood the limitations imposed by the poverty of Egypt, its need for the kindness of strangers, its reliance on foreign aid and the revenues of tourism.

This is not a country that can shut out the world. Morsi himself embodies the contradictions of modern life in Egypt. The quintessential conservative, heir to a tradition of anti-Westernism, in 1982 he earned his doctorate in engineering from the University of Southern California and taught at California State University, Northridge. Two of his sons are said to hold U.S. citizenship.

Morsi promises a presidency for all Egyptians—a role for the Copts, for women, for secularists. The promises of the day could be erased by the night, as an Arabic expression has it. But Morsi, who won a runoff election with a slim majority (51.7 percent to 48.3 percent) over Ahmed Shafiq, a man who promised to rein in the Brotherhood but was hobbled by his ties to the Mubarak dictatorship, cannot boast a strong mandate.

To begin with, there is the power of the officer corps. Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the two dozen commanders around him see themselves as the guardians of Egypt’s order, the keepers of its modernity.

In the mind of Tantawi and his colleagues, they had held their fire during the revolutionary tumult that brought down Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. There is no way of knowing just what would have unfolded had the army set out to crush the Tahrir Square protesters. But it’s likely the country would have drowned in blood, and the bonds between the army and the population surely would have been shattered. It was the better part of wisdom to let the protests go forth, to cast Mubarak adrift and maintain the idea of the army and nation as one.

For all the powers of the military establishment, this new order is no gift that the army has granted and can take back.

The terror unleashed on the people of Libya and Syria by their own militaries is anathema to the self-image of the Egyptian military. Still, Tantawi is no devotee of democracy: two days before the runoff election for the presidency, the army enforced a decree that dissolved the parliament. The decree had been issued by a judicial body, the Supreme Constitutional Court headed by a Mubarak appointee, on dubious grounds.

Next, an oddly named writ issued by the army, the Constitutional Declaration, all but hollowed out the powers of the presidency. It gave the army vast powers over a wide swath of political matters. A National Defense Council leaves all military and security matters—war and peace, relations with Israel, military cooperation with the United States, the budget of the military and their economic prerogatives—in the hands of the officers.

Yet for all the powers of the military establishment, this new order was no gift the army had granted and could take back. The crowds who defied the dictatorship, who conquered their fear and reclaimed political life from the military, once again rose up, sending a clear message to the officer corps: the days of pharaonic despotism are over.

But at what cost? Lawlessness has come to Egypt, and if it is to be rolled back, the army and the Brotherhood will have to reach a workable compact. The Brotherhood will not mind leaving the matters of war and peace, the security treaty with Israel, to the officers. This way the peace can be kept while giving the Brotherhood the alibi that such is the choice of the military.

If any overarching political vision inspires the Brotherhood, it is the Turkish model. The Iranian theocracy claims Morsi’s victory is a vindication of its model, but nothing could be further from the truth. The Shia theocracy in Tehran is anathema to Egypt’s Islamists, alien to their idea of Islam and its workings and rituals.

Turkey is a different story: a Sunni country where Islam came to power via the ballot box, then rode and facilitated an economic renaissance that made Turkey the envy of its neighbors. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s depiction of himself as the Muslim leader of a secular country is something that the Brotherhood would be wise to contemplate. And it carries with it the subversive but quiet promise that in time the political process will confine the military to the barracks, as has been the case in Turkey.

Many are eager to rebuke this Egyptian interlude. Those who had given the reign of Hosni Mubarak three decades of indulgence are unwilling to see in the few months the birth pangs of a democratic possibility. They forget or ignore even recent history, how the Egyptian people had abandoned politics and all but given up on their country. A new hope has arisen in that weary country. Are Egyptians not entitled to a decent interval before we consign them, yet again, to a despotic fate?