CHANGE IN EGYPT?

By Glenn M. Stewart

There is a definite change in sentiment in Egypt and public opinion seems to be turning against the Army. What does it portend? I have said that I believe that the Army would find a way of keeping power in the country through pulling the strings of their soon-to-be-elected creatures in the new parliament and through stringing out the new constitutional changes being contemplated. However, Field Marshall Tantawi misjudged the mood of the public and made a major misstep in appointing a throwback to the Mubarak era, Kamal Ganzouri, as Prime Minister. This brought 100,000 people into the streets on Friday to protest and the latter part of their strategy currently appears doomed to failure.

The White House has also weighed in against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), calling for a full transfer of power to a civilian government whilst this week’s The Economist has called for the generals to step down.

This is all well and good, but the situation is complex and, going forward, the question of who will hold the balance of power will not be an easy one to resolve.

Based on their actions so far, it is clear that the current Army hierarchy will not yield power easily. However, what remains to be seen is whether a younger coterie of officers, such as those that backed Nasser in 1952, will emerge and be capable of maintaining the position of the Army in alliance with a civilian party such as the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen).

What seems to be obvious is that the current gerontocracy that controls the SCAF is not competent to manage the current political situation.

There are a number of rumors going around that the Ikhwan are prepared to work with the Army if that will help them in their bid for power. At present, it is being predicted that the Ikhwan is likely to win 30-35% of the seats in the parliamentary elections and, as in Tunisia, hold the largest bloc of seats in the new parliament. If this prediction is accurate, then an alliance between the Ikhwan and the Army could very well suit both groups’ short term interests. This would not be the first time in Arab or Middle Eastern history that a dominant military group teamed up with the conservative religious establishment to hold power.

In fact, this is more or less what happened when the first overtly military regime in the region under the Buwayhid dynasty came to power in Baghdad in 946 CE.  The military used and maintained the continuity of the Abbasid Caliphate to ensure and enhance its political legitimacy. As I have said before, one should never underestimate the degree of cultural continuity that exists in the region.

A crucial element in the evolving political situation in Egypt will be the attitude of younger officers in the Army towards the Ikhwan. One thing that is certain is that in the past 10 years there has been a resurgence of conservative Islam throughout the region. This has affected attitudes among the young across the Arab world. The days of pan-Arab nationalism and Arab socialism are over. The old guard is still influenced by these movements; the younger ones see them as political failures and are swayed by the assertion of resurgent Islam that Islam is the answer.

The more liberal elements in Egyptian society will not be able to control or put brakes on the situation if an alliance between the Ikhwan and elements of the Army emerge. The liberal elements do not have a deep political base and almost none outside of Cairo and Alexandria. Cairo may be the head, but it is not the heart of Egypt and that is where this battle for power will be won or lost.