Morsi and The Military: Egypt President Firm on Constitution Vote

Egypt’s president has pulled back on his power grab—but the referendum will go on. By Mike Giglio.

On Saturday, Egypt’s top state newspaper reported that President Mohamed Morsi may be getting ready to bring the powerful military back onto the streets, in a bid to quell the chaos that has gripped the country in recent weeks. To many opposition activists, the announcement came as no surprise. They viewed it as just the latest sign that the military and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood—once bitter enemies—are now firmly entrenched on the same side.

That view is likely to persist even after Morsi offered an olive branch late last night, taking back the recent decree that placed him beyond oversight of any kind—and that incited angry demonstrators to flood the streets. While Morsi decided to roll back his new powers, he remains determined to press ahead with a Dec. 15 vote on the contentious new constitution those extraordinary powers helped him push through—something analysts say has been his real goal all along. “His strategy is to dig in until referendum day,” says Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute’s Doha Center. “He doesn’t seem to be willing to take any chances on this. There’s no margin for error.”

The opposition seems intent on continuing its protests over the constitution—which they say has been hijacked by Islamist interests and should be scrapped. News of the potential for martial law seemed designed to signal that those protests won’t threaten the approaching vote. But often overlooked in the uproar over the new constitution’s Islamist bent—with its controversial clauses on women’s rights and Sharia—is the fact that the military, like the Muslim Brotherhood, has a serious stake in seeing it passed.

The constitution offers a number of concessions to the military, shielding it from oversight and keeping its vast financial interests intact. In the eyes of many in the opposition, any troop deployment would be colored by the idea that Morsi and the military are aligned against them in pushing the new document into law. “They are on the same side now,” says the Cairo activist who blogs under the name Big Pharaoh. “The Brotherhood gave the military what they wanted. They don’t want to risk this.”

These sentiments have been growing steadily among the opposition in recent months. On Friday night, as tens of thousands of protesters swarmed the presidential palace, the crowd waved flags and chanted anti-Morsi slogans. Some of the banners featured portraits of protesters killed during crackdowns last year, when the country was under military rule. Despite the fact that Morsi—like many Muslim Brotherhood members—spent time in prison during Egypt’s decades of military dictatorship, protesters at the palace said they now viewed him and the Muslim Brotherhood in the same light as the country’s military machine.

In the February 2011 revolution, the Brotherhood’s rank and file turned out side by side with protesters to call for the ouster of former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and its members later participated in violent demonstrations in Tahrir Square against the military council that took Mubarak’s place. That group of generals, known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, had stepped into the void left by Mubarak, promising to help the country enact a peaceful democratic transition. But as the SCAF threatened to postpone elections and extend martial law, the Egyptian people worried that it didn’t intended to cede the reins of the state. For decades, the military had been an independent entity in Egypt that controlled broad financial interests, operating with little oversight of its power. Many Egyptians believed it was threatened by the prospect of democracy.

As the SCAF stonewalled, people flocked to Tahrir Square night after night, chanting the famous rallying cry once aimed at Mubarak: “The people want the fall of the regime!” Sometimes, members of the Muslim Brotherhood could be found on the front lines of that fight. But now the Brotherhood, just like the SCAF and Mubarak before it, stands accused of abandoning the Egyptian people for the pursuit of political power. “They have turned against us,” said one activist outside the presidential palace Friday.

Banned under Mubarak and persecuted during the country’s military rule, the Brotherhood had long been an underground force in Egypt. Many of its members languished for years in the bowels of state security prisons. During that time, the Brotherhood built a wide base of popular support through its generous social-welfare programs, religious dogma, and steady opposition to Mubarak. Thanks to this informal influence, it ended up well positioned during the country’s first free parliamentary and presidential elections to sweep the ballots this past year. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), along with hardline Salafis, won close to 75 percent of parliamentary seats, and the Brotherhood nominated Morsi—formerly an obscure internal enforcer in Brotherhood circles—to head its political ticket after its first choice was disqualified. Though not seen as a charismatic leader, Morsi benefited from the Brotherhood’s formidable ground machine, which helped bring him into office with a slim margin of 51.7 percent of the vote.

At first Morsi was considered a weak figurehead. But just weeks into his tenure, he shocked the country by effectively decapitating the SCAF leadership, sending its top generals into retirement and replacing them with lower-ranking officers seen as more loyal to the Brotherhood.

Among the new constitution’s many clauses are ones that would ensure that—even after Morsi’s high-profile sacking of the generals—the military and its leaders will continue to enjoy much of the power and privilege they had under Mubarak, notes Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert with the Century Foundation in New York. Many of the same provisions for military autonomy that the generals tried to introduce last year—which caused a popular backlash then—are included in the new draft. “The military has gotten a great deal,” Hanna says. “All of their privileges are there.”

The military’s freedom from financial oversight is largely preserved, Hanna notes, while its top generals will retain significant influence in national security and foreign policy. There is also a murky provision that could allow for military trial of civilians, a major flashpoint in the anti-SCAF demonstrations last year. All in all, it’s a favorable arrangement for the generals: they retain much of their autonomy and immunity without being bogged down with the business of ruling the country, which seemed an uncomfortable fit. “They have once again reverted to a role that they are much more comfortable with,” Hanna says, “which is in the background—and still very much in power.”

Gehad el-Haddad, a senior adviser to the FJP, calls the constitution a compromise, saying the military will have to be reined in gradually. Claims that the military and FJP are aligned in wanting the referendum to go ahead, he adds, are on the mark. “It’s not favorable to the FJP, but it is the truth at the end of the day. We both have an interest in passing the constitution, perhaps for different reasons,” he says. “For the FJP, it starts in building a basic civil democratic state. And for the Army, it insulates some of their mechanisms from the overreach of the state. They did get a good conditional deal.”

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“Separating the Army and the state,” he continues, “will have to be a gradual process.”

The recent mass protests—which last week spiraled into violence between Morsi opponents and supporters that left hundreds injured and at least six dead—have only seemed to make Morsi more determined to get the constitution passed, with his supporters painting it as a necessary step in returning the country to stability and allowing it to go forward with electing a legislature.

Hamid, of the Brookings Institute, notes that Morsi’s raising the possibility of martial law may reflect a serious unease on the part of the Brotherhood: that the country’s police will be unable to keep the peace ahead of the referendum this week. Brotherhood members routinely decry what they see as the failure of the police to maintain law and order—“Nowadays we don’t see the police stand for anything,” one FJP spokesman says—and during the recent wave of unrest, Brotherhood offices across the country have been torched. “They feel that they’re under siege, and they feel that the police haven’t protected them,” Hamid says.

The opposition, meanwhile, has only seemed to grow more entrenched, with many activists now saying that they won’t be contented until Morsi is forced from office. As riot police stood guard outside the Muslim Brotherhood’s main headquarters in Cairo on Thursday night, after it had come under attack from arsonists, angry demonstrators shouted the simple slogan, “Leave!” One young protester standing in front of a police line said he wouldn’t give up until Morsi was gone. “We voted for him, and now we hate him,” he said.

At a pro-Morsi rally Friday night outside Cairo’s Rabaa el-Adaweya mosque, meanwhile, many regular Brotherhood supporters voiced concern that security forces would fail to protect the presidential palace from the tens of thousands of demonstrators who were massed there. Some agreed that if the palace were to come under attack, they’d have to defend it themselves. “If they storm the palace, we will go and fight them,” said Eman el-Halawany, a small woman in a headscarf. “We will defend our president.”

Hanna, of the Century Foundation, notes that in addition to wanting to see the constitution passed, the prospect of battling political factions on Egypt’s streets would be an incentive in itself for Egypt’s military to act. “In the end, they care about their institutional interests, and they care about stability,” he says.