A man holds up an election leaflet, picturing Mohammed Morsi (photo: Reuters)
The Election of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt

A President without Power

In the end, fears of a popular backlash were just too great: Egypt's military council was forced to sacrifice its favourite Ahmed Shafiq to safeguard its extensive economic and political interests. But the powers of the new president remain reduced to the bare minimum. An analysis by Matthias Sailer in Cairo

Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won Egypt's historic presidential election securing 51.7 percent of the vote, making him the nation's first civilian president.

But the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has done everything possible to repress the will of the people and enforce its interests: After dissolving the democratically elected parliament through the constitutional court, and as it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood had won the race – the council truncated the powers of the presidential office to such an extent that it can barely still be described as such.

Constitutional amendments issued as votes were being counted after the runoff would give SCAF huge influence over the drafting of Egypt's new basic law. But the Muslim Brotherhood has now sealed important alliances with non-Islamic opposition groups and publicly declared plans to occupy Cairo's Tahrir Square for as long as it takes until the constitutional decree in its current form is revoked.

Following Morsi's election victory, it appears a new round of confrontation is to be expected on the streets of Egypt. But if the new president manages to channel the euphoria that erupted after the announcement of his victory, his office could in the end gain more influence than SCAF would deem to be appropriate at the present time.

Egypt's self-appointed saviour

During the race for the presidency, the council threw its weight behind a scare campaign by Morsi's rival, Mubarak's last prime minister and ex-general Ahmed Shafiq.

Election poster of Ahmed Shafiq (photo: Reuters)
Symbol of the old system and political failure: Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era, captured 48 percent of the vote in the runoff against his rival Mohamed Morsi

​​According to the tenor of Shafiq's campaign, an election victory by the Muslim Brotherhood would usher in the establishment of an Islamic theocracy and only an experienced politician such as himself, ruling with a firm hand, could save the economy from collapse and prevent the nation from sinking into a quagmire of crime. He did of course neglect to mention that Egypt's ailing economic situation and rising crime figures are both primarily due to the policies of the old regime.

Despite his defeat, it is not absolutely clear whether or not electoral fraud on a massive scale took place in Shafiq's favour: Although after the first round of the race there were indignant accusations that the data of millions of army recruits, police officers and dead people had been smuggled onto the electoral register to increase Shafiq's share of the vote, the electoral commission refused to grant access to the register.

But presumably the regime in any case believed that due to the mighty machinery of the state apparatus, Shafiq's victory would be a done deal without the need for electoral fraud on too crude a level. But it miscalculated and had to activate "Plan B": Measures that would either prevent a Morsi victory in the last minute or minimise any damage inflicted by such a victory.

Fear of such measures led the Brotherhood to publicise their election result before the official announcement by the electoral commission: After the ballots were tallied up at each polling booth – and in the presence of a representative of both candidates – a vote count protocol was drawn up and signed by a judge, who was also present. The publication of all these protocols lent great credibility to results issued in advance documenting Morsi's victory. This in turn stepped up pressure on the electoral commission to concede victory to Morsi.

If an accusation circulated shortly after the poll is to be believed, the Muslim Brotherhood had large numbers of ballot papers made in one of Egypt's official ballot printing presses – all of them pre-marked in favour of Morsi. So there were good reasons why the Brotherhood took this step.

Fear of reaction on the streets

If one considers the dubious role played by senior figures in the politicised Egyptian judiciary, which is closely allied to the old regime and also represented on the electoral commission, a disqualification would have been by all means conceivable. But in the end, fears of a popular backlash were too great and the military council had to sacrifice Ahmed Shafiq to safeguard its extensive economic and political interests. Instead, it moved just in time to issue a constitutional decree reducing presidential powers to a minimum.

Protests on Tahrir Square (photo: Reuters)
Resistance against the military council: Over a period of several days, thousands of Morsi supporters gathered on Tahrir Square to claim victory in the presidential poll. They called on the ruling military council to revoke measures such as the dissolution of parliament

​​This decree wrests all authority from the new president concerning all military matters, including the appointment of commanders. The current chairman of the military council, Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, remains supreme commander of the armed forces. And if he ever wants to issue a declaration of war, Morsi must seek permission from SCAF.

The military council also formed a National Defence Council consisting of 11 members of the military, the president, the parliamentary president and four members of the cabinet. It is still not clear exactly what its duties will be, apart from being responsible for matters of "national security".

This will impose substantial restrictions on the authority of the government which is yet to be appointed by the president, as all departments sensitive to national security issues such as domestic and foreign affairs, defence, the judiciary and also broadcast media would be subject to the influence of the defence council.

And as though all this were not enough: By dissolving parliament the military council has also assumed control of legislation and budgetary laws. And the chairman of a military council advisory committee, Sameh Ashour, explained that in any case, the new president would only remain in office until the adoption of the new constitution. This military monopoly on power finally culminated in the seizing of de facto veto rights over the content of this constitution, which has yet to be hammered out.

The reaction from the Muslim Brotherhood was therefore unambiguous and fierce: It rejected the constitutional decree and the dissolution of parliament and declared both measures null and void.

In a bid to underpin its stance the organisation began daily demonstrations on Tahrir Square. Since then, hundreds if not thousands of supporters have been camping out, sometimes through the night, on the square. Members of the party announced that they would be taking part in all related protest action across the nation. And they did not stop there: In a show of yet more force against the military council, the Muslim Brotherhood played a media-savvy card and sealed an alliance with numerous non-Islamist opposition groups and high-profile individuals.

Gearing up for confrontation

This alliance announced that the Brotherhood would share power with representatives of the non-Islamic opposition by appointing them in vice presidential roles and involving them in the work of the future cabinet.

Egypt's parliament (photo: dpa)
The long arm of the Egyptian military: "By dissolving parliament the military council has also assumed control of legislation and budgetary laws," writes Matthias Sailer

​​Consequently, the cabinet would not be majority-held by the Muslim Brotherhood, and the prime minister would also be an independent.

In a second common position, the newly-formed alliance issued a decisive rejection of the new constitutional decree, as well as the creation of a national defence council. Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Jihad Al-Haddad also told the New York Times that from that moment on, all communication with the military council would be conducted via this alliance.

With this alliance between the strongest opposition party and non-Islamic organisations and high-profile leaders, the Brotherhood has in the last minute exerted considerable pressure on the military council, which has up to now been able to exploit divisions within the opposition to its own ends.

An anti-Brotherhood smear campaign launched in parallel by some state and private media then lost its clout. For example, as part of this campaign the newspaper Al-Dostur ran a report, without attributing any sources, on a secret meeting of Muslim Brotherhood leaders who allegedly discussed plans to stage a "massacre" in Egypt should Shafiq win the elections.

Although this represents a stage victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, the party is by no means satisfied. Following its election victory it announced that until the constitutional decree is revoked, its members would remain on Tahrir Square. The credibility of these statements is underlined by the fact that the organisation has now even built brick washrooms on the site.

That the Brotherhood is gearing up for confrontation is also evident from a statement by Morsi's election campaign team that the president will not take his oath of office before the Egyptian judiciary, as demanded by the military council, but only before parliament (which has actually been dissolved).

If the party remains steadfast in its resolve – and in view of the tangible sense of new hope evident on the streets following its election victory – it is quite possible that Morsi's presidency will eventually gain more power than might be expected at present.

Matthias Sailer

© Qantara.de 2012

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editors: Arian Fariborz, Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de

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