Mohamed Morsi’s victory in the presidential election closes one chapter in Egypt’s chaotic post-revolutionary politics, but whether he will wield any real power remains an enormous question.
For a week, the country waited anxiously for the results as the election commission reviewed more than 450 complaints, while the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt’s military rulers reportedly negotiated in private.
At stake in the talks, analysts believe, were the future rules governing the president’s authority and the fate of a technically dissolved and Brotherhood-dominated parliament.
The Brotherhood has said its protesters will remain in Tahrir Square until they get what they want on both fronts, and the military – which has ruled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak nearly 17 months ago – has not budged.
A victory for Ahmed Shafik, which the Brotherhood would have viewed as electoral theft, almost certainly would have meant angry protests in Tahrir Square, after Brotherhood leaders threatened a return to mass protests in such a scenario. Instead, tens of thousands of ecstatic Egyptians gathered on Sunday night to celebrate, filled with high expectations.
But president-elect Morsi seems to have little power with which to fulfill those expectations and, in the words of one legal scholar, a “weird” relationship with the country’s unelected higher powers.
For eight decades, the Muslim Brotherhood has favoured a strategy of incrementalism and settling for small political gains. Morsi and his allies – a wobbly coalition of Islamists and liberals – now must quickly decide whether to fight the military or accept sharp limitations on their power.
‘Their intentions will become clearer’
A few weeks ago, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leaders were contemplating the prospect of controlling two branches of government: They had the frontrunner in the presidential race and were also the big winner in legislative elections which began last year, taking 47 per cent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament.
That all changed in a 72-hour period starting on June 14 – just two days before the election – when the supreme court ruled parliament unconstitutional, and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] quickly dissolved it.
Three days later, as polls were closing in the presidential runoff, SCAF issued another decree, a package of amendments referred to as a “constitutional annex,” which sharply limited the authority of the incoming president.
“We know what the Brotherhood’s position was prior to the announcement regarding parliament and the supplementary constitutional declaration, and there are no indications that the SCAF has budged on these two central issues.”
– Michael Wahid Hanna, fellow at the Century Foundation
Under the new amendments, the country’s highest elected official may declare war only with the approval of the generals, who will also hold legislative and budgetary power until a new parliament is elected. The president can appoint a cabinet and issue pardons, but he cannot wield authority in military affairs, including their funding and personnel decisions.
The Brotherhood has publicly rejected both decisions. Saad el-Katatni, the speaker of the now-dissolved parliament, met with members of SCAF last week and told them their decision to sack the legislature was unconstitutional, and other Brotherhood officials have made similar statements.
Mohamed el-Beltagy, a former MP and senior member of the Brotherhood, vowed that protesters would remain in Tahrir until SCAF repealed the amendments.
“We know what the Brotherhood’s position was prior to the announcement regarding parliament and the supplementary constitutional declaration, and there are no indications that the SCAF has budged on these two central issues,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “If this remains the SCAF position, then the MB’s intentions will become clearer in the next few days.”
There are de facto and bureaucratic limitations on Morsi’s power as well, beyond SCAF’s recent decisions.
The heads of Egypt’s military, security and intelligence services all rushed to congratulate Morsi, ostensibly their new boss, but it remains unclear how much power the new president will have.
The interior ministry, which controls Egypt’s police and paramilitary Central Security Forces, remains a powerful fiefdom whose top commanders, human rights activists argue, have undergone little change since the 2011 uprising. A recent justice ministry decree also gives the military civilian arrest powers.
Morsi has already said that he will consult with SCAF before choosing a defence minister. And it is hard to imagine the head of the general intelligence directorate – which persecuted the Brotherhood for years – taking orders from a Muslim Brother.
‘Real problems about to start’
“It will be a very antagonistic relationship, for obvious reasons,” said Khaled Fahmy, a legal scholar and chair of the history department at the American University in Cairo. “It will be a very tense constitutional arrangement that can lead at best to paralysis and at worst to serious confrontation and instability in the country at large and in the ruling factions in particular.”
Though Morsi’s government may issue a budget, the military council’s legislative function means they control the “power of the purse”. The SCAF can stall any effort by Morsi to give effect to his policies by actually funding them.
Morsi also has no role in the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution, a process that began on June 13 when parliament selected 100 members of a constituent assembly. That assembly still stands, but SCAF’s constitutional annex essentially gives the military veto power, the ability to refer any disputed draft article to the supreme court for review.
“That is, I think, the most serious damage that could be posed to the Egyptian judicial system, to change the very nature of the constitutional court from an arbiter of constitutional interpretations to an actual drafter of the constitutional text itself,” Fahmy said.
Fahmy said Morsi’s selection for prime minister will go far in determining how well he can interact with other state institutions, especially the courts.
But that choice will be extremely sensitive. Morsi was apparently forced, in discussions with liberal, leftist and secular pro-revolution groups, to promise he would not appoint a Brotherhood member or ally to the position.
“It will be a very tense constitutional arrangement that can lead at best to paralysis and at worst to serious confrontation and instability in the country at large and in the ruling factions in particular.“
– Khaled Fahmy, scholar at the American University in Cairo
Several names have since been floated: Mohamed ElBaradei, the pro-democracy intellectual; Ziad Bahaa Eddin, a former Social Democratic Party MP; and Hazem al-Beblawi, a former finance minister and deputy prime minister who resigned in the wake of deadly protests last October.
Even if Morsi appoints a prime minister satisfactory to his erstwhile ideological opponents, he is walking a tightrope. Revolutionaries have grown extremely disenchanted, resentful and often enraged with the Brotherhood, seeing it as a devious, authoritarian and secretive society that took advantage of the revolt to push its own conservative religious agenda.
Young progressives and leftists such as Shadi al-Ghazali Harb and Ahmed Maher have insisted they entered their new alliance with the Brotherhood – announced on Friday – with clear heads. Harb declared it the Brotherhood’s “last chance” to prove itself. But many are afraid they will be duped and used as leverage in the Brotherhood’s negotiations with the military.
Other liberal groups have more publicly denounced the Brotherhood. In a Saturday press conference, representatives from the Free Egyptians – the largest of the country’s liberal minority in parliament – and other groups, including longtime opposition leader George Ishaq, voiced fiery support for Egypt’s courts and opposition to foreign meddling, a reference to the suspicion that the US and others had tacitly welcomed Morsi into victory.
Finally, there is the matter of Morsi’s mandate, or lack thereof. He was separated from Shafik by just under 900,000 votes, or roughly three per cent of the turnout, it is clear he does not enjoy broad enthusiasm. Though Shafik congratulated Morsi in a statement on Sunday night, Shafik’s voters will not come to Morsi easily.
They are concerned Morsi will not be able to restore stability to the country or improve its economy, and more deeply, many fear the Brotherhood’s religious objectives, even though Morsi officially resigned from the group soon after winning.
Major swaths of Egypt’s prominent cities and districts – Cairo, Giza, Alexandria – were almost evenly divided between Shafik and Morsi, and the results revealed areas where he and the Brotherhood remain extremely unpopular, especially in Nile Delta governorates such as Monofeya, Gharbeya and Qalyubeya.
“I think the real problems are about to start, not to end,” Fahmy said. “It’s huge powers that SCAF has, and so in that capacity SCAF can frustrate any plans by the president.”