When massive street protests propelled President Hosni Mubarak out of office 18 months ago, Egyptians proudly called the event a revolution. Now that revolution is looking more and more like a palace coup, with the Mubarak ouster cleverly camouflaged in the language of democracy by a military working to prevent the total collapse of the old order. By jettisoning a leader who had stayed past his sell-by date, the generals suddenly sympathetic to the protesters bought time to re-engineer their hold on power even as the military played its Islamist and secular challengers against each other.
The coup de grâce unfolded against the backdrop of Egypt's historic election of a civilian President. The hint that something was afoot came just three days before the vote. In a dramatic move, the country's Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved the Egyptian parliament, which was elected less than six months ago and was dominated by Islamist parties. Then just as the presidential votes were being tallied, the junta the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced that it would assume all legislative control as well as the right to appoint a committee to draft the country's new constitution. The council chaired by Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, a Mubarak appointee also said it (and not the President) would retain full control of the country's military, including its budget, and any involvement it chooses to have in security measures at home and abroad. Liberal critics scoffed that Egypt's President would have about as much real power as the Queen of England.
The person who will occupy the presidency is still a matter of controversy. Observers believe the most votes went to Mohamed Morsy, the engineer who is the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The organization claims that Morsy has a 1.2 million vote lead over Ahmed Shafik, the former military man and Mubarak's Prime Minister. Shafik, however, says he has 500,000 more votes than Morsy. The junta, meanwhile, blithely reiterated that it would hand over power to civilian authorities by the end of June.
The more likely truth is that such authorities will matter very little. Nathan Brown, a political-science professor at George Washington University and an expert on Arab politics, says SCAF's postelection assumption of power "places the military in a position of oversight, in the short term, over the whole political system and then, in the long term, over the writing of the constitution." As if by way of an exclamation point on the promilitary nature of its ruling, the constitutional-court judges reimposed de facto martial law on the country, restoring the security forces' blanket authority to make arbitrary arrests until the new constitution is in effect.
Before the election, some Islamist leaders had spoken of Egypt's following the model of today's prosperous and relatively democratic Turkey, which is governed by moderate Islamists. Cairo's generals and their allies, however, appear to be following a different Turkish model: that of the past century, in which electoral politics were a sideshow intended to create a veneer of legitimacy for the authority of generals and judges, collectively known as the deep state, styling themselves the guardians of secularism.
The Egyptian deep state's efforts to reassert its dominance has been enabled in no small part by the rolling chaos of Egypt's increasingly ineffectual post-Mubarak politics: a liberal protest movement bereft of coherent leadership or strategy and unwilling to cooperate with Islamist parties primarily the Muslim Brotherhood's that have emerged as the country's most organized electoral force. The Brotherhood, for its part, remained ambivalent toward the secular protesters and separately negotiated a modus vivendi with the junta. The generals may not have had a post-Mubarak game plan, but they appear to have improvised their way through the political turmoil to emerge in their now improbably dominant position.
Indeed, the fact that the Islamists emerged as the leading political force seems to have panicked the deep state, hence the series of decrees in the wake of the election. The Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP said they were incensed. Demonstrations were promised, and crowds gathered in Tahrir.
However, the Brotherhood may yet prove pliant enough to collaborate with the military. The organization banned for decades by Mubarak has learned subtlety through the years of persecution, continuing to organize and even field parliamentary candidates ("independents") within the limits of the dictatorship's rules. "The Brotherhood is a risk-averse organization," says Brown. With or without the parliament or full presidential powers, it still has unprecedented opportunity. The presidency isn't fully neutered, and Morsy, if he assumes office, should be able to appoint ministers and initiate some reforms. It would be a historic chance for Islamists to gain a legal foothold at the top of Egypt's government. Says Brown of the Brotherhood: "They'll thunder and make a lot of complaints, but they'll ultimately put up with a lot."
The junta, of course, has a natural affinity for Shafik, a former air-force commander. SCAF, however, may well decide that the Islamists' electoral clout makes them eligible junior partners in nonrevolutionary Egypt. It is clearly in charge, despite the Brotherhood's political heft. SCAF may have run the show from backstage for months, but it is now openly claiming the authority to change the rules of the game on a whim including the eventual President's term in office. The junta won't feel threatened by a few thousand protesters in Tahrir.
Still, much depends on the official presidential result, notes Michael Wahid Hanna of the Century Foundation, a think tank in Washington. "If the Brotherhood is shut out of the presidency, after losing parliament and, apparently, the constitutional assembly, that would be a recipe for civil strife," he warns. "But the Brotherhood may be satisfied for now with the symbolic victory of securing the presidency and using it as a platform to press for reforms. If Morsy is declared the winner, they may be reluctant to risk their institutional perch by confronting the military." The question now, however, may be whether the generals are still interested in political cohabitation with the Islamists.