What does it mean that Mohammed Morsi is now the president of Egypt? Speaking for the American consensus, Bret Stephens argued in the Wall Street Journal against the consolation that the Muslim Brotherhood's victory "is merely symbolic, since the army still has the guns" and went on to conclude that "Egypt is lost."
We shall argue to the contrary: Not only was the election symbolic but illusory, in that the military leadership scripted it.
Morsi is not the most powerful politician in Egypt, nor is he the commander-in-chief. Arguably, he does not even run the Muslim Brotherhood. His job is undefined. A military coup could brush him aside. For the first time since 1954, Egypt's president is a secondary figure, fulfilling the secondary, functionary role long familiar to its prime ministers.
Mohamed Tantawi is the real ruler of Egypt. Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, field marshal and defense minister, he serves not only as the commander-in-chief but also as effective head of all three of Egypt's governmental branches. Tantawi is an autocrat with near-absolute powers. As chief representative of the military junta that has been ruling Egypt since February 2011, his job is to extend the junta's rule indefinitely into the future, thereby assuring officers of their perks and privileges.
The military council exploits the Muslim Brotherhood and other proxies as its civilian fronts, a role they are happy to play, permitting Islamists to garner an outsized percentage of the parliamentary vote and then to win the presidency. Reports from Egypt indicate that during the suspicious week-long delay before the presidential votes were announced, the military council met with the Muslim Brotherhood's real leader, Khairat El-Shater, and reached a deal whereby Morsi became president but the council continued to govern.
To understand its power, note three actions it took in conjunction with the presidential elections:
Imposition of martial law: On June 13, the justice minister authorized the General Intelligence Services and military police to arrest civilians at will and incarcerate them for six months if they express any form of written or artist opposition against the military council, the police, or their Islamist proxies; protesting these same institutions on the streets can lead to a life sentence.
Dissolution of parliament: On the grounds that the parliamentary elections of Nov. 28, 2011 to Jan. 11, 2012 breached the constitution (which prohibits party candidates to run for "individual" seats), the Supreme Administrative Court in February 2012, ruled them invalid. On June 14, the military council-controlled Supreme Constitutional Court confirmed this decision and dissolved parliament. In retrospect, it appears that the council, which oversaw those elections, intentionally allowed Islamists to break the law so as to have an excuse to dissolve Egypt's fraudulent parliament at will.
Establish the premise for a coup: The military council issued a constitutional declaration on June 17 that formalized its intention to prolong the military's 60-year-old rule. Article 53/2 states that, in the face of internal unrest, "the president can issue a decision to direct the armed forces – with the approval of the council – to maintain security and defend public properties." The basis for a military coup could hardly be more baldly asserted.
If foreigners are largely blind to these actions being tantamount to a military coup, Egyptians widely recognize this reality. The liberal April 6 Youth Movement called the results "a soft coup." Journalist Zainab Abu El-Magd bitterly notes that "political coups these days are done through 'fair elections.’" Ziad Abdel Tawab, deputy director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, calls the dissolution of parliament a "blatant military coup." One Egyptian newspaper called Morsi a "president without powers," while an Islamist compared him to Queen Elizabeth II of Britain.
The military council is struggling to perpetuate the status quo, whereby the officer corps enjoys the good life and the rest of the country serves its needs. Making Morsi the apparent president of Egypt cleverly leaves him responsible if the country's economic problems lead to hunger. But this trickiness also runs great dangers, for a population fed up with tyranny and backwardness finds itself saddled with more of the same. The next explosion could make the uprising of early 2011 look tame.
To help avoid that next explosion, Western governments should adopt a policy of pressuring the military council gradually to allow more genuine political participation.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum and Taube fellow at the Hoover Institution. Cynthia Farahat, a fellow at the Forum, also works at the Center for Security Policy and Coptic Solidarity.