There’s a New Caliph in Town

The Muslim Brotherhood sees a conspiracy to oust it from power around every corner, and it’s prepared to strike preemptively against its enemies -- both real and imagined.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)

CAIRO – For the first time in Egypt’s post-revolutionary political scene, the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascendancy is under serious threat. But as a diverse array of political players challenges the Islamist movement’s efforts to centralize power, the Brothers are showing no sign of backing down.

The trouble began last week, when President Mohamed Morsy issued a package of sovereign decrees that sacked the nation’s prosecutor general, appointed a new one with a mandate to re-open cases against deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak and his inner circle, and — most importantly — declared both his own decisions and the assembly drafting the country’s new constitution immune from judicial oversight. As scholar Nathan Brown put it, Morsy’s edict amounted to a declaration that he was "all powerful … just for a little while."

Unsurprisingly, Egypt’s opposition wasn’t about to sit back and let Morsy decide when he would allow rival political voices a seat at the table. Public reaction was swift and fierce: In less than 24 hours, protesters flooded Tahrir Square. In cities across the country, offices of Morsy’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — the Brotherhood’s political wing –were attacked and burned. One teenager died in the ensuing clashes. The group is poised to hold its own rally on Saturday, which it says will be a "million-man march" in support of the president’s decision and efforts to "cleans[e] the country of former regime cronies."

Morsy is no Mubarak with a beard, his advisors insist. He has merely acted to pre-empt a plot by Mubarak regime holdovers and opposition politicians that would have seen the country’s high court dissolve the constitutional assembly and annul the president’s election victory — a judicial coup that would throw the country into chaos, they say.

Pressed for evidence of the plot during a prerecorded television interview aired on Nov. 29, Morsy declined to provide any. He warned of "enemies" outside the country and said he had obtained knowledge about a plot, even though it had yet to turn into "proper evidence." "When I have this information and I feel my country is under threat, I have to make difficult decisions," he said.

The decrees, their fallout, and the Brotherhood’s reaction are emblematic of the group’s views of the Egyptian political scene five months after winning the presidency and nearly two years after the revolution opened the path for their political dominance.

Victories at the polls have buoyed the group’s confidence — some would say arrogance — and solidified its pre-existing conception of Egypt’s non-Islamist opposition as tiny and irrelevant — a constituency that can if necessary be outvoted and outmanned on the streets to push through the Brotherhood’s agenda. For the Brotherhood, the prospect of losing its political majority seems so unlikely that the possibility has not even entered into its strategic calculations.

"Should we show you our might?" said Hazem Kheir Eddin, an FJP political adviser who writes for its media outlets, when pressed about the Brotherhood’s margin of victory in the recent elections. "If you can mobilize half a million men, we can mobilize 20 million men."

Yet the group’s decision-making remains opaque, and its most influential members still adhere to a belief that the deep state is in league with their political opponents to ruin them. This sense of paranoia set the scene for last week’s sweeping power grab, and it could mean further confrontation as steamrolled opposition groups feel pushed out of the business of deciding Egypt’s future.

"The same people who are now having press conferences are the primary elements of the past regime whining about what President Morsy has been doing," said Gehad al-Haddad, a top FJP advisor.

Instead of seeking a compromise, the Brotherhood is pressing forward on issues guaranteed to provoke further conflict. The constituent assembly, which is dominated by the Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Salafi politicians, finished voting on the new constitution on Friday, and the document will probably go to popular referendum in less than a month. It is being decided after more than 20 delegates walked out in protest over what they described as the Brotherhood’s unwillingness to negotiate. Those walkouts could have doomed the assembly to dissolution by the courts had Morsy not immunized it.

In the Brotherhood’s view, the walk-out delegates — among them every Christian representative — are political opportunists practicing a public "charade," according to Haddad, after negotiating the articles they wanted. The Brotherhood believes that the opposition has become alarmed at the prospect that Islamists will earn historic credit for drafting post-revolution Egypt’s founding document. (According to prominent liberals and figures like Human Rights Watch’s Heba Morayef, however, the document was rushed to completion and retains gaping holes on human rights.)

"They are scared [Morsy’s] success will repeat the Turkish experience," said Murad Aly, the FJP’s communications director. "When Islamists will succeed and achieve something for the Egyptian people in economy, in prosperity, in social justice and things like that, it will end with an Islamist party for 10 years or 15 years in office."

Throughout the process of drafting the constitution, the Brotherhood described itself as a beleaguered middleman in the debate, saddled with the task of negotiating consensus between irreconcilable poles that include Salafis seeking a literal interpretation of Islamic law and revolutionary socialists pressing for liberalization of women’s rights. They viewed the walkouts as a cynical betrayal after months of hard compromises, pointing to their success in fending off Salafi efforts to rewrite in far stricter terms the decades-old article stating that the principles of Islamic law are the basis of legislation.

The Brotherhood could have tried talking the disgruntled delegates back into the fold. But it seems to be in no mood to compromise: Its top officials do not think the opposition was acting in good faith and, more importantly, they believe the movement has been granted several large popular mandates, dating back to a first stunning parliamentary showing in 2005, during a brief lacuna in Mubarak-era repression.

"The constituency that votes Islamist in Egypt all the way since 2005 is 70 percent," said Kheir Eddin. That constituency did not just vote for legislators, he said, but also for a constitution. "People elected parliamentarians to steer everything politically for the revolution."

The tone on the Brotherhood’s Twitter feed, @Ikhwanweb, has also become more strident and exclusionary. The account claimed on Tuesday that "ordinary Egyptians" saw those massing in Tahrir as partisans tainted by the presence of Mubarak sympathizers, not the same revolutionaries who came out in 2011.

And it boasted that it still maintained the popular edge: "[The] opposition thinks the significance of today is # of Tahrir protestors (200-300k), they shld brace for millions in support of the elected prez."

The Brotherhood’s belief in its overwhelming political superiority means that it tends to attribute any defeat to nefarious influences or conspiracy. Haddad, for instance, claimed undercover video posted online showed an opposition politician who had walked out of the constituent assembly describing the draft constitution as the "best ever written" and saying he could not allow the Brotherhood to take credit for it. Kheir Eddin claimed a group of left-wing officials including Supreme Constitutional Court Judge Tahani el-Gibaly and former presidential contender Hamdeen Sabahi had similarly been caught on video discussing the plot to dissolve the assembly and annul Morsy’s election results. Like the president, neither was willing or able to provide evidence.

Inside the Brotherhood’s rank and file, there seems to be faith in the party line at what is seen as a critical moment. Even among those who are upset with Morsy’s blunt grant of immunity for himself and the assembly, none would dissent publicly, said Abdelrahman Ayyash, a young former member who maintains ties throughout the group but opposes the way it has led the constitutional process.

"They’re not intending to be dictators. I believe they don’t want to do this," he said. "They are thinking these decisions will protect the revolution, they will be a real [defense] to the Supreme Court and the media that is demolishing Morsy’s reputation, so they believe that there are a lot of enemies and these enemies will not be defeated by anything but immunizing the [assembly]."

Ayyash said a prominent official in the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau, its highest decision-making body, told him prior to the current crisis that the Egyptian people are "very satisfied" with Morsy and a majority support his decisions. Other officials cite polls, almost all of them conducted online, that show significant approval of the president’s decrees.

In the short term, even revolutionaries reluctantly admit the Brothers’ political calculus will probably result in a victory for the constitutional referendum. But in the background of such a triumph, the political environment would still remain more polarized than ever before. Already, the flashes of violence and unbending positions on both sides have given rise to whispered worries about civil war among protesters huddled in Tahrir.

"Not even the pharaohs had so much authority," said liberal leader Mohamed ElBaradei in the wake of Morsy’s decree. "This is a catastrophe — a mockery of the revolution that brought him to power and an act that leads one to fear the worst."

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