The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

President Morsi (for sure this time.)

I was in the train between Brussels and Paris when, twitching like a maniac as I pressed refresh on the Twitter app on my iPad and grumbled about the endless speech by Presidential Election Commission head Farouq Sultan, Mohammed Morsi's victory was announced. The celebration in Tahrir and elsewhere shows many Egyptians are delighted at the news, or at least for some at Ahmed Shafiq's defeat. They are right to be enthusiastic: a Shafiq victory would have been a disaster for most Egyptians, a signal for the resurrection of the police state, and considering that the victory would have been considered stolen by many, probably the cause of much bloodshed.

But what of a Morsi victory? At the symbolic level, it is important: Morsi is the first democratically elected Islamist president of the Arab world, and also Egypt's first civilian president. His victory signals the defeat, for now, of the felool and the patronage networks of the Mubarak regime.

In more practical terms, things are more hazy: it is still unclear what powers he will have, whether he will be operating under SCAF's June 17 Suplemental Constitutional Declaration or whether he will force SCAF to cancel it, whether he will be working with an elected parliament or SCAF-as-parliament according to the June 14 Supreme Constitutional Court verdict, whether the party and movement he is a member of (the Freedom and Justice Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, respectively, although he may officially quit both) will also be ruled illegal next September, and of course whether his presidency will last the four years stipulated in Egypt's original Constitutional Declaration or only six months or so as the Suplementary Constitutional Declaration appears to indicate, since it calls for new general elections.

So many questions remain unanswered that what can best be said is that either SCAF and the Brotherhood have worked out a deal of some sort or the political jousting has only just begun. Both the Brothers and SCAF have positioned themselves in a manner in which backing down from their respective positions on the question of parliament and the Supplemental Constitutional Declaration would be a loss of face. The Brothers might be able to leverage the elation of their victory to make it easier to swallow a bitter pill, but at the same time, now that the results have been announced publicly, they don't have to. SCAF, on the other hand, has less room for maneuver without resorting to brute force and ultimatums. (Speaking of which: today marks the first time in the last few months that the Brothers have played chicken with SCAF and won.)

The next few weeks will be interesting, and my hunch is that the Brothers are not likely to give up easily now that their man is the chief of the executive. They have relatively little wiggle room on the SCC decision — they vowed to respect the judiciary's decision, after all, and the judiciary supervising the elections, made this much easier by handing them the district-level results early. But on the new Supplementary Constitutional Declaration, on the date of the next parliamentary elections and the rest of the transition roadmap, they are on stronger ground and have the backing of many non-Islamist revolutionaries and at least some of the establishment. SCAF over-reached, methinks.

One interesting sideshow (or perhaps it was central to defusing the crisis, who knows) to the last week's crisis has been the United States. The Obama administration has voiced concern and been critical of the delays in announcing the winner and the new constitutional declaration, which effectively made impossible SCAF's commitment to withdraw from power in favor of civilians and, moreover, made constitutional the permanent existence of a SCAF as a fourth power. For many, especially in the Shafiq camp, this has amounted to an intolerable form of meddling and the perception is out there that the US has backed the MB (in the more outlandish scenarios, it's a conspiracy that ends with Israel retaking Sinai and Jordan being turned into a Palestinian state).

The US' real favored outcome has been clear for a while: a strong, rooted civilian party restoring stability (and decent economic governance) in the Brothers and clear red lines on issues such as foreign policy (especially towards Israel) and unfettered bilateral military-to-military relations (overflight rights, fast-track Suez Canal access, etc.). In other words, some sort of understanding between the Brothers and the generals. In a sense, Egypt could use a breather away from the revolutionary fervor and responsible people getting the house in order. But alongside with this comes worrying possibilities: an uneasy military-Islamist alliance, perpetually unstable, with the generals undermining the civilians and the Islamists resorting to populist antics in their impotence. It's a different time and a different set of circumstances, but late 1980s Sudan is not exactly an inspiring example of Islamist-military coexistence.