Many Muslim Brotherhood figures have characterized the clashes at Ettehadiya Presidential Palace as a manifestation of its conflict with the deep state and remnants of the Mubarak era. But in reality, the Brotherhood is not fighting against the alleged “deep state” and Mubarak remnants within the opposition and inside the courts, as it claims, but rather the deep state within the ranks of its sponsored government.
The Brotherhood’s decision to escalate its standoff with the opposition, and the seemingly irrational ferocity with which it has begun to antagonize its opponents must not be understood merely as an attempt to eliminate challengers. Equally important, the Muslim Brotherhood-initiated escalation is a strong message to the deep state that the Brotherhood-controlled presidency is fully capable of erecting a political arena in which its decisions and commitments are supreme. The Brotherhood and its sponsored political order, the message goes, is here to stay, and you would be better served to jump on this bandwagon and come to its defense before it is too late. Whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to make this case convincingly remains to be seen.
In escalating the conflict with its opponents the Muslim Brotherhood may have succeeded in sending the message to the security establishment that the group will fight until the end, and will remain the only credible civilian partner for the deep state. Yet, by playing along, Morsy has also deepened his own dependency on the Muslim Brotherhood for political survival.
Ever since his election, observers have wondered whether Morsy would be able to break loose of the Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Bureau’s control, and pave the way for a presidency that answers, not to the non-elected leaders of an exclusive secret society, but rather to the Egyptian people, particularly the partisans of the revolution who came to his aid during his electoral standoff against Mubarak’s last Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq. To a large extent, Tuesday’s events and the violence committed by Brotherhood supporters in the name of the president limits the long-term prospects for such a scenario.
The relationship between the presidency and the Muslim Brotherhood cannot be understood in isolation of the long-standing internal tension between the organization’s core leadership and its community of professional politicians. The idea that Muslim Brotherhood politicians and members of parliament could “go rogue” after reaching power, and abandon the group’s core interests speaks to an enduring fear within its ranks — a fear that seems to have shaped many of the Brotherhood’s decisions since the downfall of Mubarak. For instance, the creation of the FJP as a legally autonomous political arm of the Brotherhood coincided with the decision to pad the party’s highest ranking positions with figures whose loyalty to the Guidance Bureau is not in question. Examples of such figures include Mohamed Morsy, who served as the head of the FJP until he was elected president.
On many levels, the deepening of the Brotherhood’s engagement in politics in the new Egypt has threatened the internal balance of power between those Brothers committed to the realm of politics, and others who lead less politicized social, economic, and religious endeavors — endeavors that are not always compatible with the movement’s political activities. This dynamic in part explains the chronic shifts in the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on how many seats it would contest in the 2011/12 parliamentary elections during the months leading up the race. The internal tensions that the Brotherhood’s political engagement fosters inevitably make such decisions heavily contested, and thus, volatile.
But more importantly, the prospect of a stronger Brotherhood presence inside state institutions has always raised uncomfortable questions for the group’s Guidance Bureau, such as: Who is in charge; The Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide? Or the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president and the community of Brotherhood politicians whose power and influence are quickly expanding independently of the group?
Given this predicament, it was not surprising that the Brotherhood’s position on contesting the presidential election shifted several times before its leaders reluctantly decided to enter the race. The fear of a Brotherhood presidency that is capable of asserting its independence of the Guidance Bureau has arguably influenced the group’s presidential nominations. Its leaders granted the nomination first to Khairat al-Shater, who embodies the Guidance Bureau’s interests in many ways, and later to Mohamed Morsy, a loyal partisan of the Brotherhood who has never shown any willingness or ability to rebel against the Guidance Bureau’s preferences.
In a rare incident, the Supreme Guide’s own paranoia surrounding the possibility of a Brotherhood-controlled government was once on public display in December 2011, long before the Brotherhood had even announced it would seek the presidency. In a curious remark that made news headlines, Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie said in an interview on Al-Mehwar TV that the “position of the Supreme Guide is more important than the position of the president.” What appeared at the time a perplexing and incomprehensible statement, speaks today to the essence of one of Egypt’s most salient political trends, namely the efforts of the Brotherhood’s core leaders to establish a presidency that is subordinate to the Guidance Bureau’s interests and preferences.
The first step toward this goal was nominating to the presidency a candidate with strong loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood’s core leadership. But clearly, the president’s personal loyalty was not sufficient to mitigate the concerns of the Guidance Bureau. While Morsy’s commitment to the Brotherhood was hardly ever questionable, there was a looming fear that the institution of the presidency could develop an independent team that, by virtue of the basic logic of politics, confronts institutional incentives and pressures that steer executive decisions away from the preferences of the Brotherhood’s leaders.
After all, notwithstanding his strong partisan credentials, Morsy entered the presidency facing two political forces that were seeking to carve out a role for themselves around Egypt’s new leader, namely the deep state and the traditional class of bureaucrats that occupy it, and revolutionary forces and activists whom Morsy had promised a prominent role on the presidential team in order to secure their endorsement during his tight run-off with Shafiq.
Thus, to counterbalance these pressures, the Brotherhood’s core leaders have filled Morsy’s presidential team with individuals who enjoy strong ties to the Guidance Bureau. Essam al-Haddad is a case in point. A former member of the Guidance Bureau, Haddad currently serves as Morsy’s top foreign policy advisor. He recently led a delegation to Washington, DC to prepare for Morsy’s prospective official visit to the United States. Other Brotherhood ranking leaders who serve on the presidential team include former Guidance Bureau members Essam al-Erian, and Mohy Hamed.
The influence of these individuals underscores the Guidance Bureau’s determination to keep the president in check and to ensure that under no condition — particularly moments of intense political pressure — would he ever flirt with the idea of abandoning his partisan commitments in favor of building broader coalitions with political forces outside of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In many respects, this week’s violence and Morsy’s complicity in the escalations that led to it have reinforced the Guidance Bureau’s efforts to create a presidency that takes its cues from none other than the Brotherhood, and that cannot survive independently of the group’s support. The overt use of violence by Muslim Brotherhood supporters against other members of the political community in the name of Morsy’s leadership alienated any political force that could have provided the president with a support base outside of the Brotherhood. It is anything but surprising, therefore, that the president’s calls for dialogue thus far have failed to bring to the table any political figure with meaningful stature, credibility or substantial following other than the leader of his own party (and a lonesome Ayman Nour).
Having become more beholden to the Muslim Brotherhood than ever before, the idea that the pressures and necessities of politics could force the Morsy presidency to wage more inclusive coalitions that travel beyond his core group has become more far-fetched than it was before 5 December. Returning to the question posed earlier of whether someday Egypt could have a president that answers to the people and not to leaders of his secret society or the representatives of the deep state, this week’s events suggest that such a presidency is unlikely to emerge under Morsy’s leadership.
The aftermath of Wednesday’s violence has killed any chance that Morsy could credibly claim to speak for all Egyptians, or build bases of support that go beyond two groups to which he is now more bound than ever: the Muslim Brotherhood and the deep state. Morsy is now past the point of no return.
Given these realities, where do we go from here? While proposing a possible exit from the current crisis is beyond the scope of this piece, and the situation is too volatile and evolving to set forth concrete solutions, three important observations are in order.
Firstly, the difficulty of the current standoff pertains to how violence has complicated any potential attempts to negotiate an easy political solution to the underlying crisis. Now that there is a widespread perception that the Muslim Brotherhood and the president have engaged in criminal abuse against their opponents, no longer are the points of contention limited to negotiating over constitution writing.
Moving forward and setting aside the losses and injuries that have been incurred as a result of this week’s clashes may seem compelling for the unattached observer, but such a scenario is unlikely to hold in the face of a revolutionary popular movement that does not compromise on human dignity and the sanctity of every Egyptian life.
Looking back at the events of the last two years, one could argue that there was a turning point during SCAF’s rule when negotiating the terms of Egypt’s new political order for the military ceased to be a question of constitutional and legal engineering and became an existential issue for members of the military council. One could argue that the Maspero massacre of 9 October 2011 was that turning point, after which military leaders were no longer just negotiating over the status of their institutions in the new Egypt, but more importantly, their own safe exit. Morsy and his Brothers may have just experienced their Maspero moment. This will certainly complicate the rest of Morsy’s presidency, even if in the short run a credible agreement surfaces to resolve differences over the draft constitution and the constitutional declaration.
Secondly, the more the Brotherhood realizes that it stands over a hollow political process that lacks any credibility and that the façade of democracy is no longer holding up, the greater the temptations it will face in steering Egypt closer toward a de facto or de jure state of emergency.
While Morsy’s decision to grant the military new protective powers may not represent a return to SCAF-style military rule, as some observers have contended, it may prove to be the lead up to an attempt to institute an indefinite state of emergency in order to manage dissent more effectively. The viability of such an option and its sustainability will in no small part depend on how the deep state the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled presidency will choose to manage the uneasy tensions in their relationship, as mentioned above.
Finally, just because the Brotherhood and the deep state may reach agreement that the current upheavals necessitate that the country be placed under a state emergency, does not mean that they would succeed. Such schemes may have been feasible under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, but the new Egypt is one in which popular pressure does not take a backseat to elite-led pacts and backroom deals.
If it were up to the Muslim Brotherhood and the deep state, they would have divided Egypt between themselves behind closed doors long time ago when the realm of elite politics was dominated by a SCAF-Brotherhood partnership. Their failure to do so speaks to the power of a revolutionary spirit inside the sphere of Egyptian contentious politics — one that has consistently subverted elite-led pacts that sought to exclude the Egyptian people from the table.
This same revolutionary spirit stands in resilience throughout Egypt on the streets, in public squares, and, as of now, in front of the presidential palace.
Hesham Sallam is co-editor of Jadaliyya and a PhD candidate in government at Georgetown University. This article was originally published in Jadaliyya. This is the second of a two-part article. The first part was published on Monday.