CAIRO — The revolution, for now, has been crushed.
The move by Egypt’s generals to reduce the nation’s first competitively elected president to a figurehead appears to be a decisive blow to the vision that a popular democracy would smoothly replace the longtime autocratic leadership of Hosni Mubarak. The military has resisted change since the 1950s, so there was scant surprise when it acted overnight Sunday to block any potential presidential designs against its authority.
But even as election returns appeared to show Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi winning the presidential runoff vote against a vestige of the nation’s status quo, retired air force Gen. Ahmed Shafik, supporters of the apparent victor seemed dispirited.
Only a few hundred Morsi supporters gathered to celebrate in Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators from across the Egyptian political spectrum had camped out for weeks early last year to force Mubarak to step down. The Brotherhood, along with other supporters of the revolution, called for renewed street demonstrations on Tuesday.
Egypt’s fate has broad implications not just for the Middle East, where the nation’s revolution has influenced several other"Arab Spring"revolts, but for the world at large. The Egyptian military, which continues to receive billions of dollars in American aid, has long been a durable U.S. ally and the cornerstone of regional security through its cold peace with Israel.
The Brotherhood, capable of drawing thousands of people into the streets, said it will challenge the military’s constitutional decrees as well as a national court decision last week dissolving Egypt’s new Islamist-controlled parliament. Under the decrees, the military has given itself legislative powers and ruled that a new parliament cannot be elected until a constitution, which it will oversee, is drafted. The president will have no authority over the army’s leadership or the national budget; he cannot declare war without the military’s permission.
“Military Transfers Power, to Military,” read the headline in the independent newspaper Al Masry al Youm.
However, the military’s actions to protect the old guard have hemmed in political opponents at a time when the two polarizing choices for president in the runoff election had already drained much of the life from a movement that inspired change across the Middle East and North Africa.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces “has become a state above the state with wide legislative and executive powers, a veto on constitutional and other political matters, and stands immune to any challenges,” said Amr Hamzawy, an independent member of the now-disbanded parliament. “We need to use all peaceful means to challenge this dangerous scenario. It is a national duty and a necessity.”
Official results from the runoff are expected later in the week, but the projected winner, according to the Egyptian media, is Morsi. That is disputed by Shafik, the last prime minister to serve Mubarak, who claims he was victorious. Seeking to assure Egyptians that it is the protector, not the manipulator of the state, the military on Monday promised to eventually step aside.
“The army will hand over power to the elected president in a big ceremony at the end of the month that the entire world will witness,” Maj. Gen. Mohamed Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was quoted as saying by the official news agency. “Egypt is a modern democratic country that upholds all democratic values.”
This is a “critical moment in Egypt, and the world is watching closely,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was quoted as saying by the Associated Press on Monday. “We are particularly concerned by decisions that appear to prolong the military’s hold on power.”
But the military is not likely to cede much any time soon, especially control of its budget and its vast private business interests. A Shafik presidency would not loosen the army’s grip, but the generals are worried that Morsi, who has reportedly begun negotiations with the army, would tug Egypt in another direction and make them accountable to a civilian government. Interim government officials suggested that the new president may serve only until a constitution is drafted, which could occur by year’s end.
“His office term will be short despite the huge efforts exerted in the election campaign,” Sameh Ashour, head of the advisory council for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, told Al Jazeera.
For decades, Egypt’s rulers have countered the Brotherhood’s ambitions for a state based on political Islam, engaging in persecution and torture that spawned an extremism that would later influence Al Qaeda. The constitutional decree is the latest blueprint to block Islamists from threatening the generals, in the way that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has limited the influence of his country’s once-unquestioned military.
The Brotherhood members who marched Monday into Tahrir Square expressed joy that 84 years after its founding, the organization was poised to win the presidency — but they were clearly sobered by the realities ahead.
Public support for the Brotherhood has waned in recent months. Respected for its social and religious programs, including clinics and schools, the group has dismayed liberals and nationalists by appearing increasingly politically opportunistic. Activists have blamed the Brotherhood, which had vowed not to field a presidential candidate, for endangering civil liberties by attempting to impose its religious doctrine on public policy.
Revolutionary groups, such as the April 6 Youth Movement, agreed to vote for Morsi only because they regarded Shafik as a greater danger.
What is at work is the most recent eruption in a clash of ideologies that has defined the Arab world for decades. The Brotherhood seeks to advance a political Islam and the military wants to protect a secular state that has been a reliable American ally since Egypt’s 1979 peace treaty with Israel. This struggle will affect everything from a woman’s right to work to the fate of a Palestinian homeland.
The question — often answered these days with a “no” — is whether the military or the Brotherhood will ever be inclined to agree to any of the major demands that rose from more than a year of regional upheaval. The activists who spurred the revolution lacked a galvanizing voice for deeper change, allowing the established orders to take control.
Fledgling liberal and progressive Islamist political parties say they must spend the next four years expanding their constituencies while the Brotherhood and the army battle over the contours of a new government. Given Egypt’s historical and cultural role in the region, that struggle is likely to influence new governments emerging from Arab revolts.
Tunisia’srelatively peaceful transition to democracy has so far been the example to emulate. It is unclear how Libya, Yemen and Syria, which appears to be sliding toward civil war, will emerge. Egypt’s 18-day uprising, which ended with Mubarak fleeing from his palace in a helicopter in February 2011, was perhaps the most exciting and inspiring of the revolts.
Since then, the country has been viewed more as a cautionary tale of how dangerous and difficult it is to unearth what many Egyptians call the “deep state” — the vestiges of military and police power that have so far proved stronger than the voices for change arrayed against them.