Old tensions between Brotherhood and SCAF resurface in game of chicken

With almost three months left before Egypt’s transitional period ends, the nation’s key civilian player, the Muslim Brotherhood, clashed with both the ruling generals and revolutionary-liberal forces in one breath.

It was just overnight that what was long perceived as an unbreakable Islamist-military deal seemed to reach the brink of a total collapse. On Saturday evening, the Muslim Brotherhood took everyone by surprise with an inflammatory statement bearing an unprecedented attack on the generals, accusing them of holding onto a “failing” cabinet either to “thwart the revolution” or rig the upcoming presidential poll. Besides these harsh accusations, the group indirectly revealed the ongoing dynamics of their interaction with the military by mentioning threats to dissolve the parliament. The Brothers, who hold a parliamentary majority, dismissed such threats as “inappropriate” attempts at blackmail.

Less than 24 hours later, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces responded with an equally harsh communiqué rebuffing all allegations about ill-intentions to rig the vote, set for 23 and 24 May. In the meantime, the SCAF sent an implicit threat to the Muslim Brotherhood by calling upon all political forces to remember “historical lessons in order to avoid the recurrence of mistakes from the past.” This phrase has been interpreted as an oblique reference to the 1954 military coup that culminated in the eradication of the Muslim Brotherhood from the official political arena and the establishment of authoritarian military rule.

This coup came only two years after the Free Officers had overthrown King Farouk in July 1952. Back then, the officers promised to rule temporarily and hand over power to civilians after a democratic system is instated. Yet, these promises were dropped after the second coup.

Mahmoud Hussein, the Muslim Brotherhood's secretary general, declined to comment on the SCAF statement, downplaying arguments that the parties are on the verge of a real clash.

“There is no clash and we are not seeking to have any,” he said. “It is only about divergent viewpoints. We had disagreed many times before and that had nothing to do with clashes.”

Hussein added that the SCAF’s statement should be studied first, adding that the group may contact the generals to understand what they meant exactly.

A deeper feud with the generals?

Although the future of the military-appointed cabinet seemed at the heart of the dispute, some analysts relate the ongoing rift to deeper and more strategic issues.

“This is the last-mile fight between the Brothers and the SCAF,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on the group. “There was a kind of consensus between the two, but the presidential battle has set off a feud. It seems that their negotiations over ‘a president of consensus’ have failed.”

For several weeks, the Muslim Brotherhood had spearheaded calls to nominate “a president of consensus.” The group said the expression meant a man who could gain the support of all civilian political forces. Yet, the group’s definition seemed more of a bluff to other parties, who held that the Brothers would opt for a candidate that can serve their interests and at the same time garner the generals’ approval as part of a larger power-sharing deal.

Different names were thrown out including Nabil al-Araby, the Arab League secretary general and Mansour Hassan, president of the military-appointed Advisory Council. But the group seemed incapable of selling any of these candidates to their rank and file, who are still tempted to back one of the three potential Islamist candidates.

In a sudden move, the Brothers recently announced that the group may recant an earlier decision not to field any of its members for the presidency. The name of Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential leader, has recently echoed as the group’s potential nominee. Although the change in position seemed driven by pressures from within the organization on the leadership to field their own candidate, Anani reads this development differently, arguing that it might be more of a response to SCAF attempts to impose their own candidate.

According to Anani, Omar Suleiman, Hosni Mubarak’s vice president, might be the SCAF-sanctioned candidate. For the last few weeks, sources close to Suleiman told the media that the long-standing head of intelligence under Mubarak would run for president. Support for Suleiman from the Brothers would be next to impossible, given his military background, his deep-seated animosity to Islamists and his incontestable loyalty to Mubarak. Eventually, the Brothers threw in Shater's name in an attempt to dissuade the generals from advancing such a controversial nominee, explained Anani.

“Shater is a card they are using against the military,” said Anani. “They want to say that they have a powerful candidate who can actually win so better [for the generals] to reach an agreement with them on someone who does not belong to [the military] but in the meantime is not against [the military].”

The Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council is expected to hold a meeting on Tuesday before announcing its final decision on whether to field their own candidate.

Although the Brothers' discourse still seeks to downplay the stand-off with the military, it does not conceal the group's apprehension of Suleiman’s potential candidacy.

A local paper quoted the Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie as saying on Sunday, “The group had promised over a year ago not to field any of its leaders for the presidency but new developments are shaping up, namely the nomination of Omar Suleiman, the vice president of the ousted president and other symbols of Mubarak’s regime, the threat to dissolve Parliament, and the SCAF’s insistence to keep the [Kamal] al-Ganzouri-led cabinet despite its utter failure.”

A lawmaker from the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party expressed fears to Egypt Independent that the generals might be keeping the Ganzouri cabinet to rig vote results in favor of Suleiman.

“The continuation of the cabinet might be meant to secure the administrative support that we always had in Egypt for a particular candidate. Omar Suleiman might be that candidate,” said Hatem Abdel Azim, an FJP MP.

For decades, the state’s apparatus has been used to campaign and fix votes in favor of incumbent presidents and their ruling party, a legacy that new political players hope to eradicate in post-Mubarak Egypt.

No liberal or revolutionary allies

Yet, the generals are not the Brothers’ sole immediate adversaries. Equal, if not more intense, feuds govern the group’s relationship with secular political parties and youth-led revolutionary groups. Since the kickoff of the parliamentary vote in November, the Muslim Brotherhood had been antagonizing youth-led anti-SCAF groups, dismissing them as “anarchic” forces that seek to destabilize the country and thwart the transition to democracy.

Similar animosities are growing between the group’s lawmakers and their fellow parliamentarians.

An anti-Islamist uproar is currently sweeping Parliament after the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi-oriented Nour party insisted upon allocating the lion’s share seats in the constituent assembly that will write the constitution to Islamists. At least four secular parties have withdrawn from the constituent assembly in objection to what they dismissed as “an Islamist hegemony.”

So far, the group seems unwilling to make any concessions to its civilian counterparts and hence resolve one of the two ongoing battles.

“This is a fake battle run by liberals and secularists,” said Hussein. “It is the parliamentary majority that elected [the constituent assembly] and the minority has no right to impose its views.”

Meanwhile, Abdel Azim from the FJP ruled out that the withdrawal of the few secular members of the constituent assembly would threaten the legitimacy of the new constitution.

“The constitution derives its legitimacy from the public referendum,” he said.

He went on to argue that appeals that have been already filed by secularists to challenge the make-up of the assembly would go nowhere. “These appeals are ungrounded,” he said. “The assembly was formed according to the Constitutional Declaration and bore no legal or constitutional violation.”

According to the military-issued temporary constitution, approved by a public referendum last March, MPs shall elect a 100-member constituent assembly to draft the constitution, which shall be put to public referendum within 15 days of its completion.

History repeats itself?

If the tension continues on both fronts, the generals may seize the uproar over the make-up of the constituent assembly as an opportunity to dissolve Parliament and halt the transitional process, a situation that may imply a soft military coup and hence undermine prospects for a genuine transition to civilian democratic rule.

At the discourse level, the Brothers rule out a military coup scenario along the lines of 1954 when the free officers went back on their promises to hand power over to civilians and decided to rule directly after crushing their old allies, the Muslim Brotherhood.

For Abel Azim, the context is different in 2012.

“We are before a revolution; the people are key actors here and cannot be excluded from the equation. It is not only about the generals and the Brothers but the people are also involved,” he said.

It remains to be seen if this discourse is too optimistic.

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