The opposition to Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood was, until last week, fragmented.
The ‘revolutionaries’. Savvy, networked activists, graffiti artists, hardened leftists, football hooligans, democratic idealists, frustrated people with nothing to lose. The unifying element is a rejection of both the old regime and political Islam, and a willingness to go into the streets, protest, clash, and risk one’s life in the cause of radically transforming society. They are revolutionaries all too painfully aware that what has happened in Egypt since January 2011 is not a revolution (it is those who do not want to see a revolution, who insist that it has already happened). This is the street force that set Mubarak wobbling, spearheaded resistance to SCAF in running battles in places like Mohammed Mahmoud St., and is now taking on Mursi and his supporters in the streets. They are at once the most influential and most powerless element: influential in their ability and determination to instigate crises and set the agenda; but losers in the post-Mubarak struggle for legitimate power in the new political system. They are a vanguard, with quality and energy, but not yet numbers and organization, on their side - hence a leading role in events, along with complete failure at the ballot box.
The ‘remnants’. In this category fall, firstly, the decapitated leftovers of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. These remnants visible in political life, however (capturing perhaps 7% of the vote in parliamentary elections) are complemented by business interests, long-established systems of patronage, and a large slice of traditional officialdom, particularly the police. ‘Remnants’ networks were popularly believed to be engineering crises such as fuel shortages and violent incidents with the aim of destabilizing the country and returning to power. At the grassroots level, there are very many ordinary people who have started to feel that things were better under Mubarak. This started out as mere grumbling, but culminated in the surprise entry of Ahmad Shafiq, a ‘remnant’ if there ever was one, into the presidential runoff. This result can be seen as, firstly, discontent with the economic consequences of the ‘revolution’, secondly, fear of the Brotherhood, and thirdly, the continuing efficacy of NDP networks.
The ‘liberals’. The people we like to call ‘liberals’ in the Middle East are often not very liberal at all. Indeed, to impose liberal ideas in Egypt would require a very illiberal dictatorship. ‘Liberal’ in this context is better understood as secular and capitalist. In this category you will find Western-educated intellectuals, re-branded old-regime billionaires, Christians fearful of Islamist domination, as well as professionals and businesspeople preoccupied with the dire state of the economy. Some parties in this category are distinctly ‘Western oriented’; others, like the Wafd, have more of a nationalist aftertaste. They have considerable means at their disposal and a strong media presence. Nonetheless, ‘liberal’ parties did not receive more than around 20% of the vote in parliamentary elections.
Mursi’s actions are molding these disparate forces into an increasingly coherent secular opposition. The frontline street activists, the old-regime patronage networks, and the ‘liberal’ money and media are making common cause against the threat of MB domination.
The presidential campaigns before the first round of voting in May 2012 saw various efforts to appeal to these groups. Amr Musa’s campaign, widely expected to triumph only to end with 11% of the vote, straddled the ‘liberals’ and the ‘remnants’. Abdel Moneim Abul Futouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, waged an intriguing if quixotic campaign, winning the support of both the Salafist Nour Party and many revolutionaries and liberals, gaining 17.5% of the votes. Hamdeen Sabbahi, a charming leftist and former TV host, was the big surprise, drawing votes from across the spectrum to receive over 20% of the vote. Nonetheless, Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohammed Mursi made the second round with, respectively, slightly less and slightly more than 24%. At this point, any pretense of a battle of ideas was dropped, and the campaign became a struggle of two political machines of a sort which cannot be entirely unfamiliar to Americans, based largely around cheap tricks to win over the illiterate masses and efforts to persuade more politically conscious voters that one or the other was “the lesser of two evils”. As with other rounds in Egypt’s months-long elec-stravaganza, the actual voting and counting of the votes seemed to be more or less fair, but the further one zoomed out, the worse the whole process looked. In any case, Mursi won the second round against Shafiq with 51.7% as opposed to 48.3%.
Mohammed el-Baradei’s decision to boycott presidential elections now looks wise to the full spectrum of Mursi opponents. He has won the support of Musa, Abul Futouh, and Sabbahi, among others, and is emerging as the leading figure of the opposition. He is too Western for the taste of many Egyptians. Nonetheless, Mohammed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood are, from the point of view of the same ‘sofa party’, too stridently Islamist. The fact that almost half of Egyptians voted against Mursi is extremely significant (most of these votes were hardly for Shafiq). Furthermore, a substantial chunk of the votes for Mursi were votes against the old regime represented by Shafiq, not a vote for Muslim Brotherhood domination. Even more saliently, turnout barely exceeded 40%. It is true that Islamist rhetoric has strong appeal to many Egyptians. Perhaps even more appealing, especially to the masses of poor who decide Egyptian elections, is the campaign largesse offered by the well-financed Islamist parties - oil, sugar, sacks of flour (made possible, it is thought, by Gulf money). Nonetheless, a majority of Egyptians are wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mursi’s actions have allowed this seed of suspicion to germinate. Now the MB has lost the halo of an oppressed opposition, and is forced to take real decisions and bear the consequences.
In addition to the overt political opposition to Mursi must be considered the main institutions of the state.
The Egyptian judiciary is an elite institution whose members possess enormous pride in their professional role and corporate identity. It is second only to the army in terms of its institutional history and traditions, and views itself as a guardian of those traditions; the fact that the profession tends to run in families does not hurt. Much of Egypt’s legal system is of European, particularly French origins, a system to which sharia, given lip service, in fact stands in awkward relation. Judges are widely respected by ordinary Egyptians, who contrast the often-disinterested professionalism of the mustashar with the corruption and caprice of bureaucrats. Since 1952 judges have been a frequent source of resistance to the executive, and a frequent object of attempts to bring them under control of the dictatorship. From standing up to Nasser in 1968-69, to challenging Mubarak in 2005, Egyptian judges have proven collectively resilient; although regimes were generally able to get what they wanted with a stable of ‘reliable’ judges and some loyalists at higher levels to game the system, they never succeeded in stamping out judicial independence. Mursi’s decree initiating the latest crisis was justified by the not implausible claim that some old regime loyalists remained in key positions, but in historical context looks like another effort to cement presidential power at the expense of an independent judiciary. He has picked a tough opponent. The status of judges only increased due to their role in supervising every ballot box nationwide during the post-Mubarak parliamentary and presidential elections; in a divided country, they were broadly seen as independent, trustworthy figures. They will furthermore, it seems, oversee the Constitutional referendum, despite boycott threats. Inside the polling room, their word is law. In a vote, like any in Egypt, that will be swayed by masses of illiterate village voters, how judges choose to interpret regulations and assist voters (or not), how rigorously they prevent Muslim Brotherhood party agents from ‘guiding’ voters in and around polling stations, and other such matters within their purview, could influence the outcome.
The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces has faded into the background, and its most prominent leaders, Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Anan, were dramatically retired by Mursi shortly after taking office. The new Minister of Defense and Chief of Staff (and head and deputy head of the SCAF, which still exists) are touted as ‘religious men’ amenable to the Muslim Brotherhood. Together with other high-level personnel changes, this reshuffle was widely interpreted as a successful political defanging of the military by Mursi. Nonetheless, there are reasons for skepticism that this behemoth, with its vast economic interests as well as military power, has been tamed. A chief function of Egyptian Military Intelligence was to keep the officer corps free of Islamist penetration, carefully weeding out Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers; it is difficult to believe that an individual, let alone a clique, with serious Islamist tendencies could have risen past the intense scrutiny of the mukhabarat to leading positions. More likely, the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood arrived at a series of understandings upon which to base a modus vivendi. Considering the military’s own corporate interests, the fact that the cohesive, secular culture of the military cannot be changed overnight (with sufficient self-regulation may not change at all), and the fluid political situation in the country, the disappearance of the military from the political scene should be regarded as provisional rather than a done deal.
There are yet deeper strata at work in Egyptian political life. There is an overwhelming desire for stability on the part of most ordinary people, especially the ‘sofa party’. People are sick of chaos, turbulence, and insecurity. Many blame the revolutionaries. For some, this results in a desire for a ‘strong leader’. Perhaps it was the prevalence of this sentiment that led Mursi to believe that tough measures would win broad approval; indeed, the “enough!” sentiment is probably the biggest asset in favor of ramming through a constitution now. Nevertheless, a protracted crisis may work against the MB. For even more importantly, ordinary people are suffering from the fact that Egypt’s economy is on the rocks. Before the revolution, a respectable growth rate belied high unemployment and mass poverty; much of the growth accrued to a narrow elite. After the revolution, a collapse in tourism and foreign investment aggravated the situation dramatically, although massive deficit spending has staved off the worst consequences until now. The budget deficit is presently above 11% of GDP. Reserves, once $35 billion, are down to $15 billion. While there are those willing to keep Egypt afloat - friends in the Gulf and friends in the West eager to rent Egyptian foreign policy - even this aid will not suffice to prevent cuts in fuel subsidies, currency devaluation, and inflation. The obvious target for public anger will be Mursi and the MB.
Among the deeper strata of Egyptian politics one might also place the ‘big families’ (thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands strong) who dominate the political life of Upper Egypt. The Mubarak regime cultivated this kind of patrimonial politics as an ideal instrument of social control; by supplying the ‘omda with enough patronage to keep hold of his tribe, one could buy huge blocs of votes and support in one swoop. This was buttressed by electoral districts gerrymandered to allow for the domination of single families. The post-Mubarak election law dispensed with these small districts in favor of large districts difficult for a single family to dominate (a boon for ideologically based parties, particularly Islamists). Nonetheless, in many areas of Saidi Egypt, the ‘families’ remain the dominant fact of social order, and if you scratch many an ‘Islamist’ in the area, you may find a family guy underneath.
The biggest weakness of the Muslim Brotherhood as a potential monopolist of power lies in a paucity of tools at its disposal with which to forcefully repress dissent. The intelligence services and the army may be willing to live and let live, as far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, on condition that they are unmolested in their spheres of action, but it is unclear why they should wish to stick their necks out on the Muslim Brotherhood’s behalf by undertaking active repression against people for whom, culturally, they have greater affinity. The police in Egypt are totally demoralized. After their role in shooting demonstrators against Mubarak, they have been broadly vilified across Egypt. They are, by institutional culture, ‘remnants’ of the old regime. There are many areas, particularly in Saidi Egypt, where they do not dare go. Their lackluster efforts to defend the Presidential Palace against opposition demonstrators illustrates the seriousness of the problem, as does the burning of MB offices nationwide. In the event, the Muslim Brotherhood was forced to rely on its own demonstrators and street thugs as a counterforce - a dangerous action that could easily backfire by exposing what many Egyptians are all too ready to recognize as the ‘real face’ of the MB.
As for the Salafis: one imaginative analyst has analogized them to the Tea Party in the US in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Republican establishment. Their strong showing in parliamentary elections was a surprise. They are more energetic and less organized. They are very good at scaring up votes at a grassroots level, but are politically naive at the national level. They are capable of surprising alignments across the political spectrum, such as the decision to support Abul Futouh in the first round of the presidentials. On a personal level, they are much easier to deal with than the Muslim Brotherhood - they will often tell you exactly what they think, especially if you don’t want to hear it, whereas the MB are polished in the arts of dissimulation. So far, the Salafis are sticking with Mursi - but the intensity of that support, and what strings may be attached, have not been tested.
The MB and Salafi sweep of parliamentary elections (the now-disbanded Majlis al-Sha’ab), with 37.5% of the vote for the former and 27.8% for the latter, may have given them the impression that political Islam would henceforth rule Egypt (their even bigger triumph in the Shura elections, in which hardly anyone bothered to vote, can be discounted). The razor-thin margin of victory in the presidential election might have alerted them that things would not be so simple, but, it did not. They not only failed to draw up a constitution that would make Islamist rule tolerable to non-Islamists, but gave a preview of the kind of arbitrary, dictatorial measures they were keeping in store. Now they face a galvanized, united opposition. If they cede ground and play nice, they still have the support and legitimacy to govern, for a time. If they forge ahead they will plunge Egypt deeper into civil unrest. It is difficult to see how this will end: religious-fascist dictatorship, a vibrant two party system? Or, perhaps, a new ‘man on a white horse’ emerging from the army to ‘save the day’.