Eight decades after its birth and on the cusp of seizing the country’s highest elected office, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has entered into a battle with the dominant military at the climactic moment of the country’s post-uprising transition.
Seeking to take on the mantle of a revolution it did not start, the Brotherhood has declared an open-ended sit-in in Cairo’s Tahrir Square until the results of the disputed presidential election are released, and its leaders say the movement has staked out non-negotiable positions demanding the military roll back last-minute power grabs.
But even with some members describing the contest as a deadly serious, zero-sum showdown that risks violence on the streets, the Brotherhood’s history of pragmatic patience means it is equally possible that Egypt is witnessing just one round – albeit with high stakes – in a long poker game to decide who has authority after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
“The best way to understand the post-revolution situation is to see it as a de facto prospect, not a de jure one. We are in a struggle,” said Anas al-Qassas, a political analyst who often works for the Brotherhood. “Many legislations and many declarations have been endorsed and then passed away … because of the ebb and flow of key players on the ground imposing their will.”
The Brotherhood says that its candidate, longtime internal power broker Mohammed Morsi, has defeated rival Ahmed Shafik by nearly 900,000 votes, and it has published election judges’ counts from each district in the country as proof.
But spokesmen for Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, say he has won.
The presidential election commission, which has the final say, has postponed its judgement as it considers allegations of fraud, and rumours have circulated that it is considering invalidating enough of Morsi’s votes to make Shafik the winner.
The commission itself has suggested it is looking into allegations that the Brotherhood infiltrated a government printing house and arranged for at least one million ballots to be premarked for Morsi, stoking fears that it is laying the groundwork for Shafik’s victory.
“Technically it’s impossible. It would need some aggressive and massive changes on the final results,” a former cabinet adviser who helped organise earlier parliamentary elections wrote to Al Jazeera. “So if they did it, it would be a direct call for a … revolution.”
The dispute comes amid perhaps the period of greatest uncertainty in the country’s chaotic, 16-month transition from Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
A Supreme Constitutional Court decision has ordered the recently elected parliament, of which the Brotherhood held 47 per cent, dissolved on what amounted to a procedural technicality, and the military has issued a unilateral package of constitutional amendments giving itself temporary legislative authority and the power to essentially wield a veto over the parliament-selected constituent assembly charged with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.
Brotherhood leaders view Shafik, the military and the Mubarak-appointed judiciary as an allied array of opponents protecting the interests of the old regime and loath to see Morsi win.
While Shafik’s campaign has accused the Brotherhood of being violent extremists who kill protesters in Tahrir Square, the military’s constitutional amendments stripped the future president of his powers as commander-in-chief, a move many analysts saw as a pre-emptive strike against a Morsi presidency.
But the movement’s leaders feel emboldened by the recent elections, which they believe have armed the Brotherhood with irrefutable popular legitimacy, and they say they will not negotiate their key demands: undoing the court ruling and constitutional declaration.
“The military council have realized many truths, and they know confrontation cannot happen between them and the people, and the Brotherhood thinks the same thing, but there will be pressure from the people until the rights are regained,” said Mahmoud Ezzat, the deputy supreme guide.
“No one can change [the election results],” he added, “and I see it as unlikely that anyone gets involved in such a risky way.”
That attitude is reflected among the ambitious younger Brotherhood cadres, some of whom seem eager to engage in a test of wills with the military.
Jihad el-Haddad, an aide to Khairat el-Shater – the movement’s first choice for president and a man seen as its de facto leader – said the Brotherhood is “done negotiating”.
“There’s a breaking point approaching,” he said. “This is a dying regime, and we’re creating a new one for a better Egypt.”
Haddad was strident in his conviction that the movement did its best to unite political factions from the beginning.
“This revolution did not overthrow Mubarak. It was a military coup,” he said. “Then the infighting started. We could find neither a partner nor a contender and we ended up being the bear in a room full of mice and rats.”
The Brotherhood is now ready to push the military to the brink, he said.
Its leaders are well aware that the bungled transition has cost the country several billion dollars in lost investment and aid, much of it tied to having a democratically elected government, and even more in foreign reserves spent to keep the Egyptian pound afloat.
Further unrest would likely cause a currency devaluation, pushing up the prices of food and household goods and raising the spectre of a “hunger revolution,” Haddad said.
Meanwhile, alternative premises have been found where the parliament can meet on Tuesday for its regular session, he claimed, in defiance of the military council, which has ordered the armed guards surrounding the parliament building to deny entry to MPs.
“Now the moment has come, and we will not shy away from it,” he said.
The increasing brinkmanship between the two sides has led some observers to draw worrying comparisons between parliament’s dissolution and a loss in the presidential race, which the Brotherhood would view as electoral theft, and the 1991 cancellation of elections in Algeria, where the army halted voting that was going in the Islamists’ favour and provoked an insurgency.
“Our leaders have lost their lives in jail,” Haddad said. “We’re not going to do the same. We’ll lose our lives in the street.”
His unyielding attitude, though perhaps emblematic of the movement’s young guard, represents just one side of the Brotherhood’s dual-track effort to wrest power from the military. Behind the scenes, the top leadership is reportedly in continual discussions to resolve the crisis, and both Brotherhood strategists and outside analysts say a negotiated solution is likely.
Though Haddad said talks between the two sides had shut down two months ago, when Shater last met with the military council, and that communication now occurred only through official statements and quotes in the media, a western diplomat told Al Jazeera he had been told top Brotherhood leaders held daily meetings with the ruling generals.
Saad el-Katatni, a high-ranking Brother and the speaker of parliament, publicly met with the military council as recently as last Sunday to deliver the message that dissolving parliament was unconstitutional, though Haddad stressed he had done so only in his capacity as speaker.
Both sides know the economic and human cost of a return to the mass protests and street clashes that have marked the past 16 months, and their ongoing negotiations indicate both are probably more malleable than they make themselves appear.
“We’ve learned from experience that issuing a law does not mean its implementation,” said Khairy Omar, a Brotherhood political consultant. “I see politics playing more of a role in how things are shaped. If the parties and the military council come around the table and discuss calmly, a constitutional agreement can be reached.”
Omar said there were no “red lines” or non-negotiable positions. Even when it came to parliament, which the Brotherhood has insisted is still functioning and cannot be dissolved under Egypt’s interim constitution, Omar said it is “not a problem” for the Brotherhood to participate in a new round of parliamentary elections, which the military council has insisted upon.
Like other Brotherhood members, Omar faulted the judiciary, and he noted that the Supreme Constitutional Court is set to undergo a scheduled leadership change in July, perhaps easing what the Brotherhood views as its aggression.
The courts’ influence in the transitional process “shakes political legitimacy,” he said.
“I think ever since we started elections, since last September, this has all been practice on how to possess legitimacy and take advantage of it.”
Transition in stages
Though the military council has held fast to its promise to hand over power by the end of June, its constitutional declaration – issued minutes after polls closed on June 17 – gave the generals power to declare war, veto draft constitutional articles and legislate until a new parliament is elected.
Both Omar and Qassas believe that a realistic transition will occur in stages, with Morsi and the Brotherhood likely to insist on domestic authority over the economy, health and transportation sectors while leaving aside aspects of internal security and foreign policy, specifically relations with Israel and declarations of war.
“[Morsi] should be in administration overlooking the budgets … [but] I think we are going to see an incomplete case of handing power,” Omar said. “According to the constitutional declaration, the president has authority to legislate, [but] as things stand at the moment the president doesn’t have such authority. This still depends on what the constituent assembly says.”
Qassas said he sees a possible model in Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party succeeded in improving the economy while slowly asserting civilian control over the once-powerful military.
If Morsi earns public goodwill through relatively achievable domestic policies, then he might find popular support for the longer struggle with the military council, he said.
A host of obstacles lie in the way of such a resolution. The entrenched state apparatus, especially the interior ministry and judiciary, likely fear the reforms a Brotherhood presidency would bring, and the Brotherhood has threatened to clean out those it perceives as corrupt in both institutions. Furthermore, the military may not have received the guarantees it has reportedly demanded from any incoming government before it returns to its barracks, such as budgetary autonomy, the protection of its commercial economic interests and immunity from prosecution.
According to Haddad, the Brotherhood offered “safe exits” to the military on a case-by-case basis, but no blanket guarantee that there would be no investigations or prosecutions.
“We appreciate the armed forces institution as a national one and acknowledge their role before and during the revolution,” Ezzat said. “Respect and appreciation is there, but nothing will be greater than the will of the people or the constitution.”
In Qassas’s view, voting has changed the game.
“Elections have relocated the map of legitimacy toward the winning candidates, so I think the Egyptian military would be more logical and would not just depend on its weapons,” he said.
“This is the logic,” he said. “Now we are awaiting seriously the Egyptian model.”