Protests return to Egypt after controversial power grab

COMMENT While the military is still in a strong position, it has not intervened to restrain President Mohhamed Morsi, perhaps because the more prudent path is co-operation.


It is not unusual to see Egyptian protesters gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir square demonstrating against one issue or another.

What is out of the ordinary is when demonstrators storm down the street and overwhelm the presidential palace, as they did earlier this week. Such an event signals a broadening campaign against the new Muslim Brotherhood government.

President Mohammed Morsi was not in the palace at the time, scheduled instead to be at an “undisclosed location”, but the message was loud and clear.

The protests are in response to a recent power consolidation attempt by Mr Morsi to write into the new Egyptian draft constitution executive decrees granting the president absolute power, including immunity from all legal rulings.

The move to secure such draconian powers is a response to his opponents' main weapon of bringing legal suits to challenge his government.

The Muslim Brotherhood is confronting former president Honsi Mubarak-era judicial authorities over the writing of a constitution.

Simply put, the decree he issued which is causing such mayhem in downtown Cairo essentially stalemates the independent judiciary, places the executive in command of the high court and brings institutionalisation of the Muslim Brotherhood closer to a reality.

It is the courts more than anything that have seriously impeded the recently elected government and any attempt by Mr Morsi to exact control over Egyptian politics.

The present crisis is the result of an exercise to loosen some of these judicial constraints and set in motion the finalising of Egypt’s long-awaited constitution. Completing it would help tip the balance of power away from the courts and the military towards Mr Morsi and could win back control of parliament for the Brotherhood.

Since the 2011 Arab Spring movement ignited large protests inside Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s opponents have been united only rarely. The government’s decrees unified them completely, although for how long is unknown.

The demonstrations in Egypt this week have included secularists and Copts, along with many others, all seeing a common cause in protesting against tactical moves to further strengthen the ruling Islamist group’s power.

The only significant political sector not entering into the argument is the military. The power grab by Mr Morsi was orchestrated to display his power over the judiciary, and the judiciary is controlled by the powerful Egyptian military. It waits to be seen exactly how the military will respond; their silence already speaks volumes.

The military never totally abdicated power after Mubarak stepped down last year. Generals had been in control since the 1950s revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and are essentially in control even now. The Arab Spring demonstrations and subsequent democratic election process served only to change the veneer of Egyptian politics, not the foundations.

Today, the military’s central constraint is a desire to rule from behind the curtain and leave the day-to-day details to an elected official.

This limits how far they can intervene in the civilian government’s decisions. But as long as the status-quo is maintained the generals appear content to keep their distance, despite rising calls from Mr Morsi’s opponents for assistance.

That the military haven’t intervened yet could signal a drastic weakening of their position, or it could indicate their agreement with Mr Morsi’s proposed direction for Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood must co-operate with the military if it wants to continue ruling. Forcing a scenario in which the military oust Mr Morsi and install a friendly face similar to former president Mubarak must be avoided by the Islamists.

Even with the military in control behind the scenes, it is clear the Brotherhood, and by extension Mr Morsi, is the principal force in Egypt. While the military are still in a strong position, they may not intervened in the new president’s power grab because the more prudent path at present is co-operation.

The Brotherhood needs to balance the other great regional power, Israel, and it cannot do this without the military's assistance. Likewise, the military doesn't need to govern the country outright and would rather a civilian government take the blame for a poorly performing economy and divisive social clefts.

However, it must not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to draft a constitution without some oversight. Otherwise, the Brotherhood could take control of all major government sectors – a situation untenable for the military if they wish to retain some semblance of a power balance.

Mr Mubarak’s rule was all but a puppet regime, moving only by inertia. Mr Morsi has clearly spotted a strategic opening and is moving rapidly to draft the new constitution and consolidate his power at home before he turns his gaze on the surrounding Middle East.

Fresh out of an impressive first outing in mediating a ceasefire during the recent Gaza-Israel spat, Mr Morsi has shown how serious Egypt is becoming about re-engaging with the wider region. This would be an important step as Egypt is the largest Arab country in the Middle East and holds a special geopolitical seat.

Many of Egyptian judges have come out against Mr Morsi’s decrees this week, saying the president is assuming supreme power. But he is not backing down yet, and there is good reason for him to hold his ground. It appears some sort of understanding between the Brotherhood and the military restrains the generals from intervening.  

If the protests escalate they could undermine the new president’s rule and force the military to step in, which would greatly favour those who oppose Mr Morsi’s government.

But if the armed forces decide to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, the government will be significantly stronger next year.

As it has been for more than half a century, the military hold the reigns. How it chooses to move will once again determine Egypt’s future. Business as usual, indeed.

Nathan Smith has a Bachelor of Communications in Journalism from Massey University and has studied international relations and conflict

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