Since Mohamed Morsi was declared the first post-Mubarak president of Egypt, there has been widespread speculation of confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military. Many read the outcome of the presidential election results as one that went against the will of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces).
In this reading, the military council saw in Ahmed Shafiq an ideal candidate, one who would best serve the interests of the military and ensure state policies remain unchanged. According to this rationale, with the presidential office now occupied by a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, confrontation between the military and the Brotherhood will be inevitable.
This perspective is too narrow, however, since it only reads into what separates the Brotherhood from the SCAF without looking into what brings them together. Instead of asking why confrontation is inevitable, perhaps the more appropriate question is why compromise is likely. In other words, we missed looking into what the Brotherhood can offer that Shafiq could not.
Egypt’s current bipolar political scene is characterised by a balance of weakness. It is a careful balance that regulates the relationship between the two poles, the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF. But this balance is not one of power where each side equates the other in strength; it is rather one of weakness, where each pole lacks what the other possesses. Due to this balance of weakness, compromise becomes more likely since both poles need each other.
At a time where the state has experienced vulnerability to mass mobilisation, the Muslim Brotherhood controls a highly mobilised street. Its organisational and coordination abilities make it capable of filling every major square in every significant city across Egypt. Moreover, the presence of the Brotherhood in any demonstration amplifies it and their absence undermines it and limits its influence. Moderating collective action is one of the Brotherhood’s major strengths and a contribution that a Shafiq presidency could not have offered.
In addition, a Brotherhood presidency secures for the SCAF a safe exit scenario whereby a force that is seen as revolutionary gives a stamp of approval to the administration of the transition and praises the free and fair democratic process that the SCAF implemented and supervised. A Shafiq presidency would have tainted the SCAF with accusations of election-tampering in favour of a former military general and a statesman. Hence, Morsi’s ascension to the presidential office does not come without significant advantages to the SCAF.
Meanwhile, the SCAF maintains control over the Egyptian “deep state,” the matrix of institutions that retain a network of power despite the change in elected leadership. In the Egyptian context, these institutions are the military, the bureaucracy, the judiciary and the multi-dimensional security apparatus. While the bureaucracy is the institution most likely to be penetrated by the executive, other institutions pose a challenge for the Brotherhood. Negotiating with and administering the “deep state” is a role that will be played by the SCAF. Therefore, the Brotherhood is in equal need for the SCAF and the scene in Egypt will continue to be bipolar as it has been since the toppling of Mubarak.
Apart from the balance of weakness that governs the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF, a number of mutual interests exist between the two poles creating a comfortable common ground. The leadership of the Egyptian army has shown signs of conflict and dissatisfaction with the new business elite of monopoly capitalists that dominated the scene during the last decade of Mubarak’s presidency.
This domination of the civil wing of the regime over the military one culminated in the constitutional amendments of 2007 that replaced all references to “socialism” with “free economic activity.” The military, an institution with vested economic interests directly related to state-control over economic resources, was unhappy with this shift.
To the military’s alarm, the main sources of income and investment in Egypt, allocation of public land and energy trading, were falling in the hands of Mubarak’s new business elite of monopoly capitalists. It is this very elite that the SCAF feared would return or re-create itself with Shafiq as president. A Morsi presidency is therefore more beneficial to the SCAF since it will create a new elite of competitive capitalists to replace the old elite of monopoly capitalists. This would secure the economic interests of the army while benefiting the economic force of merchants and traders that comprise the backbone of the Muslim Brotherhood’s economy.
This mutual interest in sustaining competitive capitalism leads to another mutual interest: sustaining the regional status quo and global hegemonic order. The orientation towards capitalism requires a stable trading environment that allows for a comfortable importing and exporting atmosphere. Achieving a stable environment for trading necessitates the persistence of regional order and international alliances. The Muslim Brotherhood, as a reactionary and non-revolutionary social force, and the military, as an institution least interested in radical change, will both see to the maintenance of such order.
The interests of both poles in maintaining the order of global hegemony are met with similar interests from global powers in a Brotherhood presidency. An Egyptian president form the Muslim Brotherhood (the oldest resistance movement in the Middle East) who declares commitment to the Camp David Treaty and the importance of peaceful relations with Israel, is indeed valuable strategic capital to the West. Noteworthy in this regard, is that the only political remark in Morsi’s first official speech was a declaration of Egypt’s commitment to the international treaties it has signed.
The bipolarity between the Muslim Brotherhood and the SCAF is likely to yield compromise rather than confrontation. While some friction could take place, it is more likely to revolve around minor technicalities than major policy directions. We should therefore expect the policy of the Egyptian state to change in modalities but not in essence.