Back to Square One in Egypt?
On Thursday June 14, the High Constitutional Court in Egypt will rule on two pending motions that may radically change the future course of Egypt and determine the fate of its remarkable – but unfinished- revolution. The two motions are the constitutionality of the political ban on the former regime senior officials, such as Gen. Ahmad Shafiq, the undeclared military’s candidate for president, and the constitutionality of last winter’s parliamentary elections. Each decision might drastically alter the power structure in the country, and possibly propel another revolution whose fate remains unclear.
But how did we get to this point of complete uncertainty?
History will show that the unity displayed by the Egyptian people during the eighteen revolutionary days in early 2011 was decisive in convincing the Egyptian military to dump Mubarak and side with the people. Although the revolution was initially called for and led by the youth groups on January 25, soon after most political and social movements, religious and secular, and civil society groups including labor unions, professional syndicates, students, as well as the common man and woman in the street were demonstrating across Egypt by the millions, demanding the ouster of their dictator and the end of his corrupt regime.
By the time Mubarak was overthrown on February 11, 2011, the Egyptian people were divided into two camps: an overwhelming majority that celebrated the triumph of the revolution, and a tiny minority that comprised the remnants of the old regime, which included party bosses of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), his sons’ corrupt businessmen and cronies who looted billions of dollars from Egypt’s economy, and the resilient structure of the deep state that, for decades, ruled Egyptians through fear, intimidation, and propaganda including the top echelons of the military, intelligence services, state security apparatuses, as well as state media conglomerates.
It was also abundantly clear that, by the second week of the massive demonstrations across the country, the U.S. government encouraged the Egyptian military leaders to take matters into their hands after reaching the conclusion that the best way to keep Egypt in the U.S. orbit was to abandon Mubarak. Ever since that fateful day, the plan by the counter-revolutionary forces -internally and externally- has been to break up the unity of the revolutionary groups and gradually restore the old regime minus its most corrupt public faces.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took the reign of power from Mubarak, recognized early on that the most powerful organized group within the revolutionary forces was the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). As a cautious social and religious movement, the MB is more reformist in nature than revolutionary. For decades, its objective has been to gradually reform the society towards an Islamically-oriented system of government based on its interpretation of Shari’a or Islamic law.
Realizing that it has a huge organizational advantage over other political parties especially the nascent revolutionary youth movements, the MB quickly broke ranks from these groups and reached a tacit understanding with SCAF to push for parliamentary elections ahead of rewriting the constitution or cleansing the state institutions from the loyal remnants of the old regime or the fulool. By March 2011, Egyptians were split almost 3 to 1 in favor of the Islamist position to hold elections before writing the constitution.
Throughout last summer and fall most of the youth revolutionary groups were in the streets protesting the excesses of SCAF, including holding over 12,000 military trials for civilians, carrying out several bloody crackdowns against the protesters, protecting the fulool of the old regime from accountability, and appointing a government made up of many Mubarak loyalists.
But by the end of the year, Egyptians went again to the polls to elect 678 representatives in the upper and lower chambers of Parliament. Once again, the electorate chose Islamic candidates over their liberal and leftist counterparts by a margin of 3 to 1.
Feeling empowered the Islamic parties led by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) ignored most other political parties and formed a tacit alliance with the more conservative Salafi Al-Noor party to form the constitution-writing committee. Soon after, the FJP reneged on its one-year old promise not to field a presidential candidate, thus creating a major distrust between the revolution’s Islamic and secular followers.
As the religious and secular revolutionary groups were quarreling over the discourse of the revolution and the nature of the state, the fulool, supported by SCAF and the deep security state, were quietly regrouping behind the scenes. Meanwhile, the SCAF-appointed government created many hardships that disrupted the daily life of common Egyptians while the state-run media, still controlled by Mubarak loyalists, as well as other private media outlets run by corrupt businesspeople, blamed the newly elected Parliament for the country’s deterioration in security and the near-collapse of the economy.
When the FJP demanded to form a coalition government to deal with the struggling economy, SCAF not only scoffed at the request, but also humiliated and threatened the group in public. Soon after, its preferred candidate, Mubarak’s last Prime Minster, Shafiq, was propped up throughout the country and promoted as the next president by the fulool and the former NDP machinery, as well as by the operatives of the intelligence services. Initially, no one took his candidacy seriously, believing that Shafiq could not be elected by the same people who overwhelmingly overthrew his boss just a year earlier.
At first, the fulool hoped that if they only elevated their candidate to reach the second round they would then have a strong chance to win the election one-on-one. In their view their best chance was to face the MB’s divisive candidate, Dr. Muhammad Mursi, in the runoff since it would be easier to attack him as the candidate of “the religious state,” rather than a candidate representing the revolutionary groups. They knew that if they face any of the other viable revolutionary candidates, such as Dr. Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh or Hamdein Sabahi, their candidate would be easily routed. So in the final two weeks of the first round in May every effort was made to promote Sabahi at the expense of Abol Fotouh, who was ahead in most credible polls, so as to force the split of the pro-revolution votes and defeat both candidates who were preferred by the revolutionary groups. Combined Abol Futouh and Sabahi gained 39 percent of the total vote in the first round, while Mursi and Shafiq garnered 25 and 24 percent, respectively.
In effect, the state’s scheme to sell Shafiq as Egypt’s savior was quietly in motion since at least last February. Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent on his campaign (although officially the total allowed budget for each campaign was 10 million or $1.7M). His signposts alone cost 22 million pounds, while dozens of ads ran on TV with each costing 200 thousand pounds or more. Furthermore, credible reports have surfaced that demonstrated the payments of millions of pounds to local officials in the delta region to secure the votes of the peasants. In one poor village, all of its more than 5000 votes were cast for Shafiq. In one scene circulating on the Internet and clandestinely videotaped by a cell phone, a former NDP official was boasting how the banned party machinery turned out the votes for Shafiq in upper Egypt by reviving their old methods of “convincing” the people to vote for their preferred candidate (read intimidation and bribery.)
Meanwhile, the campaign to attack Shafiq’s opponents was in full swing. Independent and nationalist, Abdel Halim Kandil, who is a newspaper editor and columnist, has recently exposed the extent of the scheme. Kandil, also well-known for being not only anti-Mubarak, but also very critical of the MB, revealed that he was told by a senior intelligence officer that soon the MB would not only be defeated and ousted from power, but that the group would also be on the run. He further stated that a division within the intelligence service called the “Rumor Spreading” section was in charge of the latest vicious attacks against the MB and its candidate, Mursi. For over a month, relentless attacks against the Islamic group have been in full force in the media spearheaded by public figures and propagated by “anonymous sources.”
Lately, Shafiq and the state’s propaganda machine have even accused the MB of orchestrating the battle of the Camel where dozens of the revolutionary youth were killed on Feb. 2 in Tahrir Square. Not only have all the former senior and junior security officials been acquitted in court, as demonstrated on June 2 by the Mubarak verdicts, but astonishingly the victims have now been turned into villains. Although all revolutionary groups, including those who despise the MB, have declared that it was in fact the youth of the MB that saved the revolution that day by standing their ground and fending off the vicious attacks by the goons of the former regime, the accusations by Shafiq and the fulool have intensified in recent days and the fabricated lies spread.
Similarly, the MB realized before the first round of elections that their candidate would have a tough time beating the other revolutionary candidates had any of them gotten to the second round. In fact, several reports from the field have recently surfaced that showed the MB field workers tacitly hoping on elections day to face either Shafiq or Amr Mousa (Mubarak’s former foreign minister). When Shafiq came in second the MB was initially confident that it could defeat him. But when the margin between the two candidates was declared few days later to be less than one percent the MB was stunned.
Unfortunately, the mistrust among the religious and secular pro-revolution groups is so deep that all attempts to unite behind Mursi have so far not succeeded. The antagonism of many secular groups toward political Islam seems to be deeper than their desire to see the revolution and its ideals realized. Equally, the partisanship and self-interest of the main Islamic group appears to be stronger than its commitment to the objectives of the revolution. Some of the demands by the secularists, such as the voluntary dissolution of the MB, were so ridiculous as to deem them frivolous. Similarly, the MB was slow and reluctant in giving assurances to the secular and other revolutionary groups, casting major doubts on its sincerity.
Hence, the revolutionary forces were once again split. Some, such as the Islamic and moderate parties of Al-Noor and Al-Wasat endorsed Mursi. Abol Fotouh and the April 6 movement also gave their support to Mursi, arguing that the main objective is now to defeat the fulool candidate (the far worse of two bad options as Abol Fotouh put it). But other revolutionary groups led by Sabahi and several liberal and leftist parties called for elections’ boycott or the invalidation of the votes since in their view both options are equally bad. They claim that Shafiq would attempt to resurrect the old regime, while they unconvincingly argue that Mursi would create a religious-based state. Unfortunately, the net result of this division is to permit the apparatus of the deep state to engineer a Shafiq victory.
According to a well-informed Egyptian political analyst, when SCAF allowed for free and fair parliamentary elections last winter, its plan was to allow the groups associated with political Islam to get elected, since their popularity was indisputable. But more importantly SCAF never intended to transfer any meaningful executive or governmental power to the FJP or their allies so as to demonstrate to the electorate their impotence once in Parliament. In due course as the revolutionary spirit starts to wane and the support to the Islamic groups weakens, the plan was to invalidate last winter’s parliamentary elections and call for new ones in order to restore some of the power back to the fulool and other secular forces, thus substantially reducing the support and power of the Islamic groups.
So shortly after the elections, several lawsuits by the fulool and secular groups were filed challenging the constitutionality of the elections’ law based on the fact that the parties were allowed to contest with independents the one-third parliamentary seats reserved for individuals. Although there was a near-consensus on this law by all the political parties at the time, it has been used by the adversaries of the winners of the elections as a back-up plan that could be utilized to dissolve parliament at the appropriate time. According to Parliament’s speaker and senior FJP official, Dr. Saad Katatni, SCAF deputy commander Gen. Sami Anan and Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri told him last March that if the MB persists on its demand of forming the government, the dissolution of parliament was a distinct possibility that could be set in motion at any moment.
Realizing this grave threat, instead of uniting the revolutionary groups to stand up to SCAF, the MB responded by fielding its own candidate in order to seriously challenge SCAF’s threat, albeit for the first time since the triumph of the revolution. Furthermore, the parliament (dominated by the FJP and its allies) immediately passed a law to ban from any political activity any candidate affiliated with the old regime. After massive popular demonstrations that compelled SCAF to sign the law, the Elections Committee refused to apply it and disqualify Shafiq. Instead it referred the law to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) in order to decide on its constitutionality. Furthermore, although the lawsuit against the parliamentary elections has been pending for months, the HCC chose to schedule a hearing and rule on both motions this Thursday, two days before the runoff elections.
On the first issue, a report submitted this week to the HCC by legal experts was issued that concluded that the Elections Committee had no jurisdiction to refer the law to the HCC since it is an administrative body and not a judicial one. If adopted the ruling would result in forcing the Elections Committee to disqualify Shafiq from running in the second round next week. Such decision would then compel the runoff elections to be cancelled and the first round elections to be held again.
On the other hand, the experts committee also said in its report that if the HCC accepts jurisdiction, then its recommendation was to deem the political banning law unconstitutional, and thus to hold the runoff elections next week between Mursi and Shafiq, the top two contenders of the first round. On the second motion the committee recommended that the parliamentary elections law be deemed unconstitutional, and thus the HCC must decide to either dissolve the Parliament or hold new elections for a third of its members. In either case, the Parliament would no longer be functional.
In short, there are four possible scenarios with regard to the outcome of the HCC rulings this week. Each one would most likely benefit a distinct and different political faction. They are:
Scenario 1: The HCC rules that it has jurisdiction over the banning law and deems it unconstitutional. In addition, it rules that the parliamentary elections law was constitutional. In this instance, which is the status quo, the MB and their presidential candidate would be the beneficiaries since such outcome would favor them as they keep their majority in the Parliament. Furthermore, absent massive elections’ fraud by the security agencies, the MB believes its candidate will win the presidential elections against Shafiq with the group’s adept organizational machine and massive mobilization efforts across the country.
Scenario 2: The HCC asserts jurisdiction and upholds Shafiq’s candidacy by ruling the banning law as unconstitutional. It also decides to dissolve Parliament or invalidate the elections of one-third of its members. This ruling would clearly be favored by SCAF and the fulool since the power of the MB and the other Islamic parties would immediately be curtailed, which in their view would be very difficult to regain in new parliamentary elections (this time it may or may not be free and fair.) The fulool also believe that with such a ruling they would have the momentum to get Shafiq elected by this Sunday’s presidential runoff and thus completely defeat and obliterate the revolution and roll back its most significant gains.
Scenario 3: The HCC bans Shafiq, and dissolves parliament. This scenario is favored by the secular revolutionary groups. Having clipped the wings of the Islamic parties by dissolving the Parliament, the secular groups hope to have another opportunity to challenge them at the polls. They also think that by repeating the first round elections their candidate (whether Sabahi or even Mousa) would defeat the MB candidate in the runoff, as he would be supported not only by the secular revolutionary groups but also by Shafiq’s and Mousa’s supporters.
Scenario 4: The HCC bans Shafiq but keeps the Parliament. This scenario is favored by the moderate and liberal Islamic and pro-revolutionary groups, the majority of which supported Abol Fotouh for president in the first round. In this scenario, the only political institution established by the revolution, namely the Parliament, would remain viable and strong. The supporters of this outcome also hope to unite the revolutionary forces behind Abol Fotouh or even form a single ticket that would include Abol Fotouh and Sabahi in order to defeat the MB candidate in a potential runoff election.
It is evident that SCAF has for over a year outfoxed all revolutionary groups, Islamic or secular. Depending on what scenario prevails on Thursday, it is equally clear that SCAF will have to either force their candidate on the Egyptians using all the tools of the “democratic process”, or take the country back to square one through a clever judicial ruse.
No matter what the military decides, the youth this time are determined not to put their trust in either the military or the political class but on their capacity to stay the revolutionary course until all their objectives are achieved. Hundreds of their pioneers, led by dozens of women including Asmaa Mahfouz and Nawwara Nagm, among the first to call for the January 25 demonstration that sparked the revolution, have been on hunger strike and continuous sit-in for over a week in the middle of Tahrir Square.
But now they are determined not to leave until their revolution is revived, the fulool are defeated, and the military return to their barracks.
Esam Al-Amin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org