Much Ado About Little

Egypt’s Overhyped Parliamentary Showdown

President Mohamed Morsi made a big deal of convening the country’s dissolved Parliament, but it was less a confrontation with the military than political theater designed to shore up flagging Muslim Brotherhood support.

07.11.12 8:45 AM ET

Tuesday in Cairo was a moment for grand political theater and big dramatic gestures. It also was a day whose subtext was just as revealing as anything that happened in public.

Here’s what transpired on the surface: The Muslim Brotherhood staged a showy and symbolic convening of the People’s Assembly, in open defiance of both the country’s Supreme Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. (An SCC verdict last month dissolved the four-month-old Brotherhood-dominated legislature on an electoral technicality that was swiftly enforced by the SCAF.)

Tuesday’s rebel parliamentary session was short and sweet—lasting less than 15 minutes and consisting of Speaker Mohamed Saad El-Katatni announcing that the whole parliamentary question would be referred to the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest appeals court. Then the Brotherhood headed two blocks away to Tahrir Square for a mass public rally designed to emphasize their popular support. Within hours of the parliamentary session, the Supreme Constitutional Court had publicly struck back, invalidating President Mohamed Morsi’s decree to reopen the Parliament in the first place.

Taken at face value, the day’s events equate to a public declaration of war between the MB and the SCAF—which, according to the court ruling, now holds legislative authority. The Parliament was reinstated by a presidential decree from Morsi, a longtime Muslim Brotherhood senior official. In the process, Morsi essentially created a scenario where Egypt’s executive branch is openly challenging the authority of the judicial branch over the future and legitimacy of the legislative branch. That’s a catastrophe for any country, much less one as fragile and fractured as modern Egypt.

The likely truth, however, is far less dramatic. For starters, neither side went as far as it could have. The SCAF, which has recently barred members of Parliament from entering the chamber, avoided a public showdown and let the session happen. Meanwhile, the Brotherhood made it clear they respected the Egyptian judiciary and would not be holding any further wildcat parliamentary sessions while their appeal was pending.

“I want to stress, we are not contradicting the ruling, but looking at a mechanism for the implementation of the ruling of the respected court. There is no other agenda today,” Katatni said.

Somewhat lost in the chatter is the crucial aspect that Morsi (and by proxy the Brotherhood) has essentially accepted the concept that this Parliament will have to go. Morsi’s decree stated that new parliamentary elections would be held within 60 days of the ratification of a new constitution. That process could take up to six months, meaning the Brotherhood will have to defend its parliamentary control by next spring.

Either way, there will be a new Parliament, and the dominant 75 percent Brotherhood/Salafist bloc is widely expected to lose ground. That’s a major Brotherhood concession—one that is being somewhat disguised by all the noisy public defiance.

There is a sense of kabuki theater at play—with such choreographed displays merely being the public extension of a deeper dance between the Brotherhood and the combined SCAF/judiciary forces. It’s likely that this isn’t a destabilizing confrontation so much as a trial balloon for the shape of the eventual SCAF/Brotherhood deal; the Brotherhood (having secured the presidency) concedes this Parliament, but negotiates its own face-saving timeline.

Outbursts such as Tuesday’s also serve as barometers for measuring just how much support the Brotherhood has outside its usual base. It’s fair to assume that the Islamist organization’s hardcore loyalist cadre comprises about 25 percent of active voters—that’s the number that voted for Morsi from among 12 other candidates in first-round elections. The other 26 percent that Morsi attracted in order to claim his narrow presidential runoff victory come from non-Brotherhood voters—many of whom openly distrust and dislike the Islamist group, but sought to block Morsi’s rival, Hosni Mubarak–era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.

The Brotherhood has repeatedly demonstrated the ability to fill Tahrir Square to respectable levels and maintain a long-term presence there. But it has struggled in recent months to find allies among the other revolutionary forces.

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Thanks to a combination of exhaustion, disillusionment with the state of the revolution, and distrust of the Brotherhood, many revolutionaries have ceded control of the Tahrir Square pulpit to its latest tenants. Many feel no particular urge to become pawns in a Tahrir-based chess match between the Brotherhood and the SCAF; they wish for a scenario that weakens both.

The crowds in Tahrir Square on Tuesday (and for the past several weeks) were overwhelmingly Islamist and overwhelmingly male. The old mingling of secularists and Islamists and the high percentage of female protesters that characterized revolutionary Tahrir Square are tokens of a bygone era. Having fought its way to true power, the Brotherhood now finds itself comparatively alone.

“They’ve become more and more isolated,” said Wael Nawara, a secularist activist and cofounder of the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. “I don’t think the Constitutional Court would have dared to dissolve the Parliament if it sensed that the Brotherhood had more support.”

A broad coalition of secularist parliamentarians refused to participate in Tuesday’s rogue parliamentary session, most citing an opposition to the idea of any president simply overturning a Supreme Court decision by decree. In reality, many of those politicians and their supporters would simply love to have a chance to redo the parliamentary vote and cut down the size of the Islamist bloc.

Nawara bears enduring antipathy toward the Brotherhood for what he claims was a cynical manipulation of the electoral timeline in order to “steal more than their share” of the Parliament during elections in December—and for high-handed dealings with its other revolutionary forces in the past 16 months since Mubarak’s ouster.

Part of the problem is that the Brotherhood’s critics (and reluctant allies) tend to assume that the organization is constantly negotiating with the SCAF and constantly looking to cut a deal. As a result, there’s reluctance among non-Brotherhood revolutionaries to answer some sort of MB rallying cry, believing there eventually will be a “sell-out” accommodation negotiated in some back room.

“The revolution was a revolution against the old regime, in which the (Mubarak government) and the Muslim Brotherhood dominated politics together,” Nawara said. “That’s still what’s happening.”