What’s been happening in Egypt this week is as important as the revolution that overthrew the old regime almost two years ago. A new dictator has arrived, and while the Muslim Brotherhood’s overturning of democracy was totally predictable, Western policymakers walked right into the trap. They even helped build it.
President Mursi has now declared his ability to rule by decree. The key concept is that he can do everything to protect the revolution. In doing so, he is defining the revolution — as the Iranian revolution of 1978-1979, which was made by a broad coalition of forces, soon after became defined — as an Islamist revolution.
One could call the Islamist strategy a short march through the institutions. Once Islamists take power — in Iran, the Gaza Strip, Turkey, and perhaps too in Syria — that is only the beginning of the story. They systematically do a fundamental transformation.
The media, or at least a large part of it, is tamed. The draft constitution written by the Brotherhood and Salafists allows the government to shut down any newspaper or television station by decree. The courts are made impotent and judges replaced. Mursi’s decree said he could ignore any court decision.
At a November 18 press conference, a few days before Mursi issued his decree, the leading secular-oriented representatives in the constitution-writing constituent assembly resigned, charging the new document would enshrine Sharia law. The problem was not the statement in Article 2 about Sharia being the main source of Egyptian legislation but rather later provisions making it clear that Islamist-controlled institutions would interpret precisely what that meant. Amr Moussa, former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general, said the new constitution would bring disaster for Egypt. Abdel Meguid called this combination “Taliban-like.”
Scattered secularist forces, Coptic Christians, liberals or the remnants of the old regime, and modern-minded women do not pose a real threat to the regime. They are not violent, not organized, and not flush with cash. They can expect no material international support. There will be no civil war between the moderates and the Islamists, the suppression of one by the other. The Salafists are itching for confrontation; the Muslim Brotherhood is patient. But when Salafists harass women or stab secularists or attack churches, the Brotherhood-controlled government will do nothing to protect the victims.
Of critical importance for Egypt is control over the religious infrastructure: the ministry of Waqf that supervises huge amounts of money in Islamic foundations; the office of qadi, the chief Islamist jurist; al-Azhar University, the most important institution defining Islam in the Muslim world; which clerics get to go on television or have their own shoes; and appointments of preachers in every public mosque in the country.
Many clerics are not moderate but most are not systematic Islamists. Soon they will be or at least talk as if they were. Revolutionary Islamism will become in Egypt merely normative Islam. Thus is the endless debate in the West about the nature of Islam — religion of peace or religion of terrorism? — short-circuited and made even more irrelevant. The real power is not what the texts say but who interprets them. And the Islamists will do the interpreting.
While the judges are still holding out bravely, only the army has real power to counter the Islamist revolution transforming the most important country in the Arabic-speaking world into the instrument of the leading international anti-Western, anti-American, and antisemitic organization. It doesn’t matter how nicely Mursi spoke to Obama any more than, say, how Lenin — who moderated Soviet policy in the 1920s to consolidate the regime and get Western help — did in his day.
What is going on inside Egypt’s army, the last remaining institution that could offer resistance? We don’t really know, but there are certainly some important indications. In theory, the army is the only force that can challenge the Muslim Brotherhood’s drive to transform Egypt into an Islamist state. But why should we believe the officers want to engage in such a battle?
Under the leadership of a secret society called the Free Officers, Egypt’s army overturned the monarchy in 1952 in a virtually bloodless coup. Yet while Egypt was for decades thereafter ruled by the resulting regime, the military government soon became a military-backed government. Officers either moved over to civilian offices or, if they opposed the regime, were purged.
Aside from doing its professional duties, the new generation of officers turned to money-making. The Egyptian army became a vast economic enterprise, with its own farms, factories, and housing estates. It was not a political interest group, and certainly not an ideological organization, but an economic enterprise.
During the more recent revolution, the army’s main concern was its own corporate interests — especially control over the military budget, the choice of its leaders, and those business activities. Over and over again the Western mass media and governments spoke as if they were dealing with a South American army that wanted to rule the country. It was portrayed as repressive and potentially tyrannical. By definition, all civilians — especially the Muslim Brotherhood — were good guys against the supposed military would-be dictators.
This was far from the truth. The military was eager to get out of power as long as its narrow interests were preserved. One of its biggest fears was becoming unpopular. That’s why it didn’t crack down in 2011 on behalf of the Mubarak regime and didn’t do so very much when it was in the transitional military council. To put it bluntly, the army wasn’t the bad guys but, relatively speaking, among the good guys.
Now, however, that moment is past. Partly under international pressure, it gave power to an elected president without securing a single one of its demands. So much for the tyrannical generals. Scores of top officers resigned and they are now being replaced by the choices of one man, the president.
Who is Mursi going to appoint to head the new Egyptian army? Given the lack of Islamist sympathizers at the top — there is much debate over how many there are among more junior officers — he needs to put in place opportunists. These would be men who in exchange for their rank and privileges will do his bidding. That is what’s happening now; the Islamist high command should come later.
Lacking any ideological orientation against revolutionary Islamism; without charismatic leadership; not at all united, and in a sense fat and greedy; without any foreign encouragement; and not wanting to shoot down its own people and set off a civil war, the Egyptian army is not a bulwark against the country becoming an Islamist dictatorship. If the Islamists could overcome a far more coherent and ideologically anti-Islamist military in Turkey so easily, there’s no reason to think a similar process won’t happen in Egypt, too.
What are the red lines for the army? First and foremost that nobody touch their economic empire and cut their budget. Mursi isn’t stupid enough to get into trouble on that issue.
Second, those who attack the military with guns must be dealt with harshly. Mursi is willing to crack down on those extremely radical Salafist groups — notably in the Sinai — who shoot Egyptian soldiers rather than just restricting themselves to attacks on Israel.
Third, the preservation of U.S. military aid. No worries there; it would take a lot for the Obama administration to cut off this assistance. The regime can go far toward suppressing women and Christians, making clear it is helping the forces seeking to wipe Israel off the map, subverting other Arabic-speaking countries, and setting up a dictatorship without having to worry about losing the aid.
Finally, will the Egyptian military constantly refuse to take steps that might entangle it in a war with Israel? Here is the most likely hope of restraint though Mursi isn’t eager for such a direct conflict either. The danger, however, is not so much an executive decision to go to war but a slow slide into conflict. Along the way, Egypt can be permissive toward those staging cross-border attacks on Israel; allow Egyptian volunteers in large numbers to go to the Gaza Strip to fight; and allow lots of weapons in the Gaza Strip. Small-scale border clashes or a future Israel-Hamas war could move things in that direction.
For the time being, however, as indicated by the ceasefire, Egypt’s new regime doesn’t want a conflict either. Consolidating its power within the country and creating a new order that will last for decades is a big task. All the institutions must be transformed, a constitution finalized and adopted, billions of dollars of foreign aid begged, oppositions tamed. As an indication, the radical nationalist regime in the 1950s spent three years at that task before turning toward an attempt to dominate the region.
Patience and practical sense of how to proceed to accomplish radical objectives should not be mistaken for moderation. The Middle East will still be there to Islamize, Israel will be there to destroy, and American influence will be there to eliminate when Mursi is ready.