If a cabal of Egyptian generals had been planning a coup, their moment to strike should be imminent. Tuesday saw new clashes between police and tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators outside Cairo’s presidential palace as a constitutional deadlock hardened into a not-yet-violent civil war between Islamists and their rivals-and as political camps brought their supporters onto the streets ahead of a Dec. 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution. The turmoil plays out against the backdrop of an Egyptian “fiscal cliff” that urgently demands political stability. Still, even if the current scenario includes conditions similar to those that have preceded coups in unstable societies with powerful militaries, a putsch by Egypt’s generals remains unlikely.
“Remember,” says Century Foundation analyst Michael Wahid Hanna, “Egypt’s military didn’t enjoy their time at the head of the government after [President Hosni] Mubarak was ousted.” And while President Mohamed Morsi has antagonized his political opponents with a power grab that has put his decrees beyond judicial restraint, and with an unseemly rush to ram through a constitution critics say opens the way to authoritarian Islamist rule, he has been careful to keep the military onside.
“The military’s core institutional priorities have been well catered to in the draft constitution,” notes Hanna. “Its autonomy from civilian decision-making and budgetary oversight has been largely preserved, while the national security establishment has a significant, if not yet clearly defined, role in national security decision-making. The military got a good deal in this constitutional process, and unless their intervention is required to stop Egypt plunging into civil strife, they’re going to stay on the sidelines. This isn’t their fight.”
Instead, it’s a straightforward political gang war. On the one side stands Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood, who rely on their proven ability to trounce their rivals at the polls to impose their will through democratically elected institutions. They see little need to compromise with opponents they accuse of using Mubarak-era institutions to thwart the popular will. Ranged against Morsi are a range of secular, liberal and Christian groups, explicitly making common cause with remnants of the old regime in order to restrain the Islamists, who they accuse of seeking to replace the old regime with a theocratic state
Egyptian police battled thousands of protesters outside President Mohamed Mursi’s palace in Cairo on Tuesday, prompting the Islamist leader to leave the building, presidency sources said.
Officers fired teargas at up to 10,000 demonstrators angered by Mursi’s drive to hold a referendum on a new constitution on December 15. Some broke through police lines around his palace and protested next to the perimeter wall.
The crowds had gathered nearby in what organizers had dubbed “last warning” protests against Mursi, who infuriated opponents with a November 22 decree that expanded his powers. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” the demonstrators chanted.
“The president left the palace,” a presidential source, who declined to be named, told Reuters. A security source at the presidency also said the president had departed.
Mursi ignited a storm of unrest in his bid to prevent a judiciary still packed with appointees of ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak from derailing a troubled political transition.
Facing the gravest crisis of his six-month-old tenure, the Islamist president has shown no sign of buckling under pressure.
More than 200,000 people thronged Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, protesting against Egypt’s Islamist president Tuesday in an opposition show of strength, as the standoff over Mohammed Morsi’s assertion of near-absolute powers escalated into the biggest challenge yet to his and the Muslim Brotherhood’s rule.
The massive, flag-waving, chanting crowd in the iconic plaza rivaled the size of some of the large protests of last year’s uprising that drove autocrat Hosni Mubarak from office. The same chants used against Mubarak were now turned against Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” and “erhal, erhal” — Arabic for “leave, leave,” rang across the square.
Protests in Tahrir and several other cities Tuesday were sparked by edicts issued by Morsi last week that effectively neutralized the judiciary, the last branch of government he does not control. But it turned into a broader outpouring of anger against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, which opponents say have used election victories to monopolize power, squeeze out rivals, and dictate a new, Islamist constitution, while doing little to solve Egypt’s mounting economic and security woes.
Clashes broke out in several cities as Morsi opponents tried to attack offic
Nobody should have been surprised when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi issued a “constitutional declaration” on Thursday asserting total political power. This was, after all, the former Muslim Brotherhood leader’s second power grab since he took office in June, complementing his earlier seizure of legislative and constitution-writing authorities by now insulating himself from judicial oversight. Yet Washington was caught entirely off-guard: Morsi’s power play was at odds with the administration’s view that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “democratic party,” and his impressive handling of last week’s Gaza ceasefire created a modicum of trust between him and President Obama. So the State Department released a predictably confused statement, urging “all Egyptians to resolve their differences … peacefully and through democratic dialogue.”
Washington ought to have known by now that “democratic dialogue” is virtually impossible with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now mobilizing throughout Egypt to defend Morsi’s edict. The reason is that it is not a “democratic party” at all. Rather, it is a cultish organization that was never likely to moderate once it had grasped power.
That’s because the very process through which one becomes a Muslim Brother is designed to weed out moderates. It begins when specially designated Brotherhood recruiters, who work at mosques and universities across Egypt, identify pious young men and begin engaging them in social activities to assess their suitability for the organization. The Brotherhood’s ideological brainwashing begins a few months later, as new recruits are incorporated into Brotherhood cells (known as “families”) and introduced to the organization’s curriculum, which emphasizes Qur’anic memorization and the writings of founder Hassan al-Banna, among others. Then, over a five-to-eight-year period, a team of three senior Muslim Brothers monitors each recruit as he advances through five different ranks of Brotherhood membership—muhib, muayyad, muntasib, muntazim, and finally ach amal, or “active brother.”