As showdown with military looms, Egypt liberals back Muslim Brotherhood

The Egyptian military has offered the Muslim Brotherhood a choice: give us sweeping powers, or lose the presidency.

By , Correspondent

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    Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi display a T-shirt with a picture of Morsi in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
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A coalition of non-Islamist leaders and revolutionaries announced their support for the Muslim Brotherhood’s presidential candidate today, overcoming a year and a half of bitter disagreements to unite against the attempt of the Egyptian military to hold on to power.

The show of unity increases the Brotherhood’s leverage as it faces off against Egypt's military rulers, who this week limited the authority of Egypt’s incoming president and granted themselves sweeping powers that will extend past the end of this month, when they had promised a full handover to a civilian government.

But for all the appearances of an all-out confrontation between the two sides, many believe they are negotiating in secret as well. Two non-Islamist figures said Brotherhood leaders told them this week SCAF had offered them an ultimatum in a recent meeting: either accept the constitutional declaration giving SCAF wide powers or accept the military's preferred presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq as the victor. The Brotherhood refused, said one of the sources, both of whom asked to remain anonymous.

As the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi, held a press conference to announce the new coalition backing his presidency, thousands of people filled Tahrir Square, responding to a call from the Brotherhood to protest the military’s recent power grab. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) responded with a statement dismissing the complaints and indirectly threatening the protesters.

The escalation comes amid a delay in the announcement of the official results of the presidential election, fueling concern about fraud and the perception that the outcome is being negotiated. The Muslim Brotherhood says Mr. Morsi won with 52 percent of the vote against Mr. Shafiq, the last prime minister under ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Hassan Nafaa, a longtime liberal opposition figure who was among those announcing support for Morsi today, said that the coalition’s objective was to force Morsi to publicly commit himself to democratic values. “For us the point is not to support Mohamed Morsi against Shafiq, but to support democracy,” he said. “We need a democratic system and we feel that the SCAF is trying to manipulate and extend its mandate for an unlimited time, and this is not democratic at all.”

The deal also guaranteed non-Islamist forces representation in a new government if Morsi wins. Dr. Nafaa said the Brotherhood’s record of broken promises over the past year was worrying, but that secularists no longer had a choice but to unite with the Brotherhood against the military. “We hope that he will honor his promises and we are watching. We don’t have any other solution,” he said.

However, the coalition does not include representatives of the largest secular parties in parliament, and many liberals or secular revolutionaries still refuse to join the Brotherhood, some of whom also oppose the military.

Legitimacy and democracy

Wael Ghonim, a former Google employee who shot to fame during the uprising when he was arrested for running a Facebook page that had called for the original protests, also announced his support for the coalition. “This is not a stand with the Brotherhood. It is a stand with legitimacy, with democracy,” he said during the press conference.

What forced the two sides together was a blatant move by the military to retain power after a civilian president takes office. Last week, a decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court struck down the law governing parliamentary elections. The military council declared this meant that Egypt’s elected parliament, in which the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) held nearly half the seats, was dissolved. Most of the court’s justices were appointed by Mubarak.

Then, just after polls closed on Sunday, the SCAF unilaterally issued an amendment to Egypt’s interim constitution that granted the military legislative power until a new parliament was elected, and gave it extensive control over the drafting of Egypt’s new constitution. It also removed civilian oversight of military affairs.

The agreement, a last-ditch move by both sides, was hammered out in long meetings yesterday. Morsi promised to appoint a government that is not dominated by the FJP if he wins and to appoint an independent prime minister. He said he would not choose a vice president from the FJP, but would possibly appoint a woman, Christian, or one of the presidential candidates who did not make it into the runoff.

Bitter fruit

Still, the announcement was a bridge of the bitter divide between Islamists and secular revolutionaries and political figures that opened just after the uprising last year, when the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces campaigned for the military’s proposed interim constitution that laid out the transition timeline. That was something most secular politicians opposed.

In the ensuing year, the Brotherhood broke many pledges, and refused to join protests against military rule in November when 45 people were killed in clashes, in order to protect its interest in the elections. After winning nearly half the seats in parliament, the FJP threw its weight around, dominating the constitutional committee and at times seeming to cooperate with the military. Some non-Islamists, on the other hand, sided with the military against the Brotherhood and lashed out over the FJP's success in free and fair elections.

In the press conference, Morsi also called on authorities to release election results as soon as possible, and rejected SCAF’s constitutional amendment and the dissolution of parliament. He said he respects the Supreme Court’s decision on the parliamentary election law, but implied it did not mean the parliament must be dissolved.

Joshua Stacher, a professor at Kent State University who spent the last month in Egypt, says the Brotherhood and the military are unlikely to come to an all-out confrontation in the streets, and are more likely to come to agreement through negotiations.

The court cases, parliament dissolution, and battle over the constituent assembly are “choke points that SCAF can [hold] over the Muslim Brotherhood, but what they do is rather than encourage street mobilization, they actually encourage negotiations,” he says. “What we’re witnessing is a pact-making process, as opposed to a conflictual one.” Each side uses protests or harsh statements as negotiation tactics.

Both sides, the Brotherhood and the regime, are hierarchical organizations that are threatened by mass mobilization, and therefore want to avoid it, he says.

“I think that the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is much more comfortable dealing with a system that looks like it, as opposed to one that doesn't respect these political hierarchies or one that doesn't respect these ways of political hegemony that are imposed all over society, nor the sort of very strict and rigid social class system in this country,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have very intense pact-making behavior going on.”

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