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The Calculus of Egypt's Presidential Race

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Headlined to H3 4/23/12

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Cross-posted from CounterPunch

The U.S. and the Muslim Brotherhood


"President Hosni Mubarak has decided to step down from his position as president of the republic." Uttered by former Vice President Omar Suleiman on the evening of February 11, 2011, these words set in motion jubilations by millions of Egyptians celebrating the ultimate triumph of their will over the obstinate dictator.

Although the previous 18 tumultuous days had united the overwhelming majority of Egyptians regardless of political orientation, religious persuasion, economic class or social strata, the ultimate victory of the revolution was not inevitable. The massive demonstrations that started on January 25, were originally called for by groups dominated by youth activists such as the April 6 Movement and "We are All Khaled Said," in reference to the young blogger who was murdered by state security agents. Most established political parties and social movements including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) did not initially support the calls to protest in anticipation of the security crackdown, though they did not discourage their members from participation.

Within days the demonstrations escalated, and it became clear that the security forces were not able to stop the growing protests. By January 28, the protesters called for a Day of Rage, and all genuine opposition parties, led by the MB, took to the streets calling for the ouster of Mubarak. Within two weeks, the regime was ousted and the military, under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which refused to back Mubarak and violently disperse the demonstrators, assumed political control, promising a peaceful transfer of power to a democratically elected civilian government within six months.

It was the most momentous event in the modern history of Egypt. But unfortunately, the revolutionaries went home satisfied with their astonishing achievement as the remnants of the regime -- the fulool -- were on the run.

But this incredible historical unity of all Egyptians soon dissipated, giving way to deep ideological divisions. Urgent issues such as whether the constitution should be written before democratic elections or vice versa, or long-term questions concerning the identity of the country, the nature of the state, the role of Islam in society, and the status of the military were hotly debated outside an agreed upon framework. Religious and social groups that were highly organized insisted on holding the elections first, utilizing their clear advantage over others especially the new revolutionary groups that lacked structure, manpower, and resources.

But these revolutionary groups realized early in the standoff with SCAF that none of their objectives were going to be accomplished without applying tremendous pressure on the military council. For several months, massive demonstrations returned to Tahrir Square in order to compel SCAF to dissolve parliament and local assemblies, change the government, force trials of the deposed president and his corrupt cronies, repeal emergency laws, and halt military trials, among other revolutionary demands.

Throughout these demonstrations that sometimes turned deadly, especially in July and November, the revolutionary youth accused the MB of turning a blind eye to the SCAF's abuses, and in some instances even defending or justifying its actions. Hence, throughout the summer two main camps were formed: the religious camp with the MB and the more conservative Salafis on the one hand, and the secular camp that included the liberals, the leftists, and many youth groups. The former clearly wanted calm in order not to give any pretext to postpone the parliamentary elections, scheduled for end of November, while the latter accused the former of pursuing political expediency at the expense of the primary objectives of the revolution.

By the end of January 2012, the elections of the two-chamber parliament concluded with stunning victories for the religious camp garnering close to 75 percent of the seats, led by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the MB, gaining 47 percent of the seats, while the Noor Party (the political arm of the Salafi groups) acquiring 25 percent of the seats. Other smaller Islamic parties received 3 percent while all the liberals and the leftists parties combined acquired less than 22 percent. The fulool, of the banned National Democratic Party (NDP), running under numerous new-fangled names, garnered less than 3 percent.

The Brotherhood and SCAF

The charge of the revolutionary groups was not completely without merit. The MB by its nature is a conservative group that favors phased reforms rather than revolutionary change. It had been banned since 1954 after its confrontation with the Nasser regime. Since the release of its members from prison in the early 70's, its primary objective was to receive recognition by the state and work within the system. So when in a secret meeting during the height of the revolution on Feb. 1, former Intelligence Chief and Vice President Omar Suleiman offered the MB leadership recognition and release from prison of their senior leaders -- Deputy Supreme Guide Khairat El-Shater and businessman Hasan Malek -- in exchange for withdrawing their ranks from the streets, they agreed. Meanwhile, the revolutionaries, including MB youth groups and other rivals within the MB leadership at the time such as Dr. Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, refused to leave Tahrir Square and openly defied the proposition. The attack by the goons of the former regime the following day in the Battle of the Camel forced the leadership to change course and that agreement became moot.

For almost a year since the SCAF took power in February 2011, a tacit honeymoon between the two strongest centers of power in the country evolved for different reasons. On the one hand, the MB did not want to experience a repeat of their 1954 showdown with the military that ended in their ban and imprisonment. Confident in their ability to win contested democratic elections, they overlooked all the attempts by SCAF to frustrate fulfilling the objectives of the revolution, particularly with regard to holding corruption investigations and trials, or banishment of former regime loyalists in the government.

On the eve of the triumph of the revolution on Feb. 10, 2011, the MB senior leadership body of about 120 members met for the first time in years and announced they would not seek more than 30-40 percent of seats in a new parliament and that they would not field a presidential candidate. They gave assurances to anxious civil society groups and nervous international powers that they simply wanted to be one of the participants in governing the country and that they did not want to face similar sanctions Hamas had to contend with in Gaza after winning the 2006 elections.

Throughout 2011, the main strategy of the MB and its affiliated FJP was to manage a close coordination or at least a friendly and cordial relationship with SCAF in order not to give the military any pretext to postpone or cancel the parliamentary elections. But with the elections approaching, the pledge not to field more than 30-40 percent evaporated and the group fielded close to 100 percent of the candidates, winning an impressive result as it won almost 47 percent of 498 elected members in the lower house (People's Assembly) and 55 percent of 180 elected members of the upper house (the Shura Council).

Meanwhile, since taking the reign of power, SCAF has had three main objectives that they wanted to secure before turning over control to a future civilian government. Since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, the military has quietly acquired a substantial stake of the Egyptian economy, estimated by experts to be between 25-35 percent, comprising many sectors including agriculture, industry, real estate, and energy. This control allowed many generals and senior military leaders, as well as their families, to enjoy extreme wealth without any transparency or public accountability. No one in government, let alone parliament or the public, knows the extent of their holdings, who has control over it, or how it is being spent. Unsurprisingly, SCAF justifies the concealment and control of these public resources in the name of national security.

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Esam Al-Amin is a regular contributor for a number of websites.
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