The shape of Egypt’s second republic

Most Egyptians will come to remember 13 August 2012 as more than just another long hot day of the holy month of Ramadan. Just a few hours before sunset when millions waited eagerly to break their fast, news broke out of a major development in the ongoing power struggle between two main power houses: the generals representing the country's military past, and the political faction seeking to control its future. President Mohamed Morsy tipped the balance in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood in mid-June, when he announced the revocation of the supplement to the Constitutional Declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Moreover, a presidential decree announced a major reshuffle within the ranks of the military establishment, including, most noticeably, the forced retirement of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and de-facto military ruler since 11 February 2011, as well as the military chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sami Anan.

The president’s decree could be interpreted in two different ways, each suggesting a different scenario for Egypt’s future. On the one hand, it could signal the start of a new Islamist-military pact, one that confirms the speculations of those who believe that a power-sharing scheme between the two has been in place for a while now. In the eyes of many, the presidential decree is simply a reshuffle of the power structure within the military establishment, one that would rid it of those that stand against the Islamic penetration of the state’s institutions. The appointment of military intelligence chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was promoted two ranks from major general to general and now heads the ministry and the armed forces, and who also happens to be the same general who first admitted (and later defended) that military personnel performed virginity tests on a number of female demonstrators in April 2011, is seen as further evidence that little will change in current ‘dual’ ruling structure. According to this view, the Islamists and the generals will continue to form an anti-revolutionary pact that serves to suppress the democratic forces of the revolution, that are yet too weak to have any meaningful say on the shape of things to come. To those that adhere to this view, the future of Egypt resembles that of Pakistan, since both countries share three main ingredients: an Islamic-military ruling pact, a more fundamentalist Islamic grassroot movement and a soaring poverty rate.

On the other hand, there are others who see Morsy’s decision in a different light, interpreting it as the end of the tenuous pact that existed for the past 18 months between the two forces, rather than its beginning. According to this opinion, the historical struggle for power between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military state has culminated in a clear victory for the former. The weakness of the nation's non-Islamic democratic forces, coupled with the sidelining of the military, paves the way for the Muslim Brotherhood to control the political sphere uncontested, and for a long time to come.

But the reality is not as straightforward as either scenario claims it to be. Out of the dramatic events of the past week, one fact emerges slowly but surely: it is officially and unceremoniously the end of an era. The military state that has dominated the political scene since the 1952 coup d’état is definitively withering away, and with a speedier rate than most expected. The transitional period, an expression Egyptians heard extensively about but saw little of until now, is finally about to begin. A second republic is coming into being, but it might turn out differently than either of the above scenarios predict.

The first scenario, a long term “Pakistani Pact” in which the Islamists share power with the generals, is neither desired nor feasible in Egypt. It is clear from the tone, swiftness, and assuredness in which Morsy’s decrees were carried out that the newly groomed generals are now "subordinate" to the president in every real sense. In other words, they are now part of a pact in which they don't enjoy the upper hand, much less of an equal status. The weakness of the military establishment is evident for all, glaringly obvious from the recent events in Sinai.

On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the all-powerful force that those who either fear or desire a Brotherhood state make them out to be. For one thing, such a state remains very difficult for the Brotherhood to realize even if they desire so. The past year or so has made it painfully clear that it lacks the necessary capabilities to manage the everyday affairs of the state by itself. Most importantly, the state bureaucracy still remains the last strong bastion of the old regime and the Muslim Brotherhood faces the formidable task of controlling thousands of disenchanted public servants who have been continuously either striking or threatening to do so for the last year and a half. The power of the bureaucracy lies in its ability to disrupt and distort the new government’s best-laid plans. Given the organization's mediocre performance over a number of key policy issues, and its tendency to exclude other political forces from the decision-making process, the Brotherhood’s task will be far from easy. This remains the case despite the group's almost exclusive control of political life, and the lack of any serious competition from other forces, at least for the time being.

Finally, there remains one factor that might prove to be the most decisive in determining the shape of Egypt’s second republic; for this is no ordinary democratic transition, but one that comes on the heels of a massive popular revolution. A new wave of revolutionary action that is more connected to the political process, and more organically tied to the original demands of the revolution — bread, freedom and social justice — is gaining increasing momentum. The unprecedented level of disenchantment and social unrest as manifested in the growing number of strikes is showing no signs of receding and is not likely to be suppressed easily. This is coupled with the realization of even the most conservative of social factions that things can’t remain the same. Now, with the Muslim Brotherhood assuming full responsibly before those who elected them, and with no SCAF to blame or hide behind, it will fully bear the brunt of a legacy of failed statehood. The next few months will be crucial in determining the shape of Egypt’s second republic, but for now, and for all intents and purposes, the revolution continues.

Hind M. Ahmed Zaki is a political science PhD candidate at the University of Washington.

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