Column

06.15.12

O Brotherhood, Where Art Thou?

"You are no parliament. I say, you are no parliament. I will put an end to your sittings.” According to tradition, that's what Oliver Cromwell told the English “rump parliament” when he dissolved it in 1653. Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court must have been channeling Cromwell on Thursday, when its justices effectively dissolved the new Islamist-dominated Egyptian parliament.

When you cut through the maze of legalese, the ruling demonstrates that powerful forces in Egypt simply won't accept Muslim Brotherhood domination of the emerging political system. And because the Brotherhood is increasingly politically isolated, the court and its allies may get what they want.

The ruling was shocking, but not surprising. In a series of statements last month, the head of the Judges Association clarified that the judiciary now sees itself as a fully political entity, and as the primary bulwark against Islamist domination.

In effect, Egypt has witnessed “a soft coup" by the military and remnants of the former regime. Other recent measures have also been aimed at protecting the power of the military and other existing institutions, and forestalling Islamist control. These include, for example, the reassertion of the security forces’ power to arrest civilians and refer them to military tribunals, and the overturning of the law that barred former regime officials from running for office.

And after Thursday’s decision, the military quickly asserted that it would take on the role of the legislature, as well as that of the presidency. They added that, following the election, the new president will take his oath before the military rather than the parliament.

Dissolving parliament also means dissolving the constitution-drafting Constituent Assembly.  So, Egypt enters this weekend's decisive second round presidential election without a constitution, a clear constitution-drafting process, a parliament or crucial protections for civil liberties.

The Muslim Brotherhood reacted as if it was completely taken aback by the ruling, and it has yet to issue a clear-cut statement. One of its more intriguing options would be for parliament to refuse to comply with the ruling. Other Egyptian parliaments have been ordered dissolved by courts in the past, but have continued to exercise their legislative function. The Brotherhood might decide to try to test the power and authority of the SCC by ignoring it. Because the military has ordered the parliament to disband and close its doors, as this would also almost certainly mean a confrontation with the Army.

In addition to being left with only such desperate and implausible options, the Brotherhood faces deeper political problems. Egyptian revolutionaries are outraged by what they reasonably interpret as a coordinated counter-revolution coming from the military, the courts and other Mubarak regime figures and institutions. But many of them are also completely fed up with the Brotherhood. As they see it, the Brotherhood cut a special deal with the military (which explains why they failed to back numerous demonstrations), and now that deal has now backfired. Many revolutionaries argue that the Brotherhood tried to hijacked a revolution they can take little credit for. Their efforts to stack the constitution drafting assembly, sudden retraction of their long-standing commitment not to field a presidential candidate, and other heavy-handed missteps have revivified suspicions about the Brotherhood across the political spectrum.

The Brotherhood appears bewildered and defeated. In public events on Thursday, its candidate, Mohamed Morsi bellowed angry platitudes that suggested profound anxiety, even though he recently scored a clear victory in overseas balloting by Egyptian ex-pats. His mono-tonal shouting probably doesn't help either. By contrast, establishment candidate Ahmed Shafiq (who was prime minister under Mubarak), was brimming with confidence before a rapturous audience. Not only were his remarks presidential, they sounded like an acceptance speech.

The conventional wisdom is that Shafiq will either win cleanly (indeed, his support has recently surged in numerous areas, including Upper Egypt), or through fraud coordinated by the military and remnants of the former regime. Egyptians are divided into at least four main camps: Islamists; liberals, sympathetic or unsympathetic to the former regime; and unaffiliated voters mainly concerned with economics and law and order. The situation is complex enough that Morsi could certainly still win. But if Shafiq wins—whether fairly or unfairly—it will complete the circle of counterrevolution. The Brotherhood, which never truly represented the forces that brought down the former regime, will have played a major role in bringing the revolution to a crashing halt.

Both liberal revolutionaries and the illiberal Brotherhood will be back to square one. But they don't share a common agenda or political values. The bottom line is that if a new, democratic Egypt eventually emerges, it can't be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. There are too many forces, with significant public constituencies, that simply won't accept an Islamist-dominated Egypt.