Will Egypt’s generals yield?

In the first of what is likely to be a series of confrontations between Egypt’s new elected leader and the country’s armed forces, President Mohamed Morsi has called for a parliament disbanded by the generals to return to work, pending the election of a new representative body under a yet-to-be-written constitution. As with much about Egypt’s transition from autocracy to democracy, the controversy over the legitimacy of the People’s Assembly is overlaid with legal issues. The Islamist-dominated assembly was dissolved last month by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, but the council acted pursuant to a finding by Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court that a third of the assembly’s members had been elected illegally. (On Monday, the court reaffirmed that ruling, describing it as binding and final.)

In reconvening the People’s Assembly, Morsi insisted that he wasn’t flouting the decision of the court but rather reversing an executive action taken by the military council in the absence of a civilian president. Indeed, the overarching issue in this dispute is whether the armed forces are prepared to yield power to the elected representatives of the Egyptian people.

So far the evidence is mixed. The military council accepted the election of Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood who defeated a former prime minister under Hosni Mubarak. But it dismissed the assembly and asserted the authority to make budgetary decisions and to veto a presidential declaration of war. It also has reserved the right to challenge a new constitution as inconsistent with “the revolution’s goal and its main principles.” And on Monday, responding to Morsi’s reconvening of the assembly, the council released a statement expressing confidence that “all state institutions” would respect the constitution and the law — an oblique warning to Morsi and members of parliament.

Like the military in Turkey, the Egyptian armed forces see themselves as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. Less nobly, they are also determined to preserve their outsize role not only in Egypt’s national defense but also in an array of governmental and economic activities.


To some extent, the military’s power — along with economic realities — may have inclined Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to a more pluralist and moderate course. But if the generals overplay their hand, they will lose popular support and antagonize Egypt’s allies, including the United States, which provides the military with $1.3 billion a year in assistance. Both Congress and the Obama administration have put the generals on notice that those funds are in jeopardy if the transition to democracy is thwarted. An attempt to shut down a reconvened parliament would be interpreted inside and outside Egypt as just such an obstruction.