Jubilant chants echoed far beyond Tahrir Square when the Muslim Brothers’ candidate, Muhammad Mursi, was confirmed as Egypt’s first civilian president last week. Mursi’s election was lauded across the globe, and many are hailing today’s “transfer” of power as a triumph for democracy.
But there is little reason for celebration. In this latest grand spectacle manufactured by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the generals symbolically respected the people’s choice while using the election to further entrench their unaccountable political autonomy.
In February 2011, most analysts assumed that Mubarak’s government had collapsed. They were wrong. The regime never changed. It was reconfigured. The underlying centralized structures of the system that the military council inherited from Mubarak persist, and the generals have sought to preserve them. The recent election was just the latest attempt to formalize the generals’ executive authority while winning public legitimacy.
The military council exemplifies the highly adaptive quality of Egypt’s governing elite. Egypt’s senior generals have remade the ruling coalition by using centralized authority to neutralize newly included political forces and divide the increasingly marginalized protesters. In the process, the military has effectively prevented all groups from resisting its encroachment as a fourth estate.
This was possible because the state’s apparatus, while disrupted, held after Mubarak’s departure. The hierarchy within the vast and largely cohesive state bureaucracy resumed functioning as the effect of the protests subsided. The state media began accusing protesters of causing chaos, scaring tourists and being agents of foreign elements. The demands of workers, women and Coptic Christians were dismissed as special interests of secondary importance.
The security services were rebranded, and successive courtroom acquittals gave them a guarantee that their repression of fellow Egyptians would have no legal ramifications. As time passed, the post-Mubarak regime began to look and act like its predecessor. Buttressed by the machinery of the state, the military then sought allies to contain the power of future protests. High electoral drama has produced what political scientists call a “pact making” exercise.
Egyptians have gone to the polls five times since March 2011. Rather than elections’ producing real choices, though, the military has used them to create an environment in which it can negotiate a pact with the winners. And the Muslim Brothers, who are trying to gain a lasting foothold in the system, have willingly participated. Yet it remains a comparatively weak actor, forced to compete on the military’s uneven playing field.
The Brothers have long been skeptical of popular mobilization, making it a useful accomplice to the military’s efforts to consolidate power. Despite some Brothers’ condemnation of the military’s recent maneuvers as a “coup,” protest politics has become more complicated now that one of their own occupies the presidency. The Muslim Brothers will have a hard time persuading others that they are still an opposition force. Indeed, any Brothers who flock to Tahrir Square are now tacitly resisting their president.
In a sign of continuity, Mursi has met with the interior minister and pledged not to purge that despised ministry or seek revenge against it. Consequently, the Muslim Brothers have become invested in a centralized state that blocks the clamor for change from below. Given this political structure, Mursi isn’t likely to be able to resist the generals’ ultimatums in the short-term.
Mursi’s control of any of the national security portfolios is unlikely. It remains unclear whether the disbanded parliament will be reinstated or when a new one might be elected. The military has laid mines in the constitution-drafting process, threatening to exercise its veto at every turn. This traps the Brothers between street protesters and the generals, with few good options.
The protesters can’t seriously pressure the army into transferring actual political power without cooperating with the Brothers. And although the protesters won’t disappear, the Brothers are unlikely to cooperate closely with them. Mursi is more likely to attend to Egypt’s ailing economy and save political battles with the generals for another day. In the process, the unaccountable military will be able to better ingrain itself politically while the democratically elected Mursi becomes the object of popular blame for the country’s economic ills and political gridlock.
The military checkmated Mursi before he was crowned. Egypt’s leading generals had a long-game strategy to capture control and they have emerged as the election’s actual victors because they are poised to remain in charge of the country for the foreseeable future.