The last few days a conflict has been developing between the Egyptian government and the judiciary as the deadline for drafting the nation's constitution approaches. Through the election of Mohammed Morsi in June 2012, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood gained control of the executive branch of Egypt's government. The group now wants to gain control over the legislature, but to do so, it needs the judiciary to rule in favor of the legality of the Constituent Assembly -- a step that would legitimize the constitutional draft before it goes to referendum and lay the ground work for parliamentary elections in 2013.
Reaching agreement on the provisions will be key to the judicial ruling on the legality of the Constituent Assembly. It will also help determine how much independence the judiciary has in the future. After the 2013 legislative elections, the Muslim Brotherhood will try to insert pro-Brotherhood allies into judicial entities to erode the power of groups like the Judges Club. The conflict between the Brotherhood and the judiciary is thus far from over.
Yesterday the Muslim Brotherhood has called on the Egyptian armed forces to secure its headquarters against protesters in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam. Meanwhile, media reports indicate that Salafist sheikhs have called on the country's youths and Muslim Brotherhood brigades to protect Brotherhood offices across Egypt from attacks. Tens of thousands of pro- and anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrators have gathered in Tahrir Square and in volatile Cairo neighborhoods, such as Mahalla, in a standoff over Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's recent attempts to neutralize the judiciary and consolidate the Muslim Brotherhood's power.
The situation is clearly escalating, and it does not appear that the Muslim Brotherhood is confident that it will be able to contain the unrest. So far, internal security forces and police have been deployed to contain the riots, but there has been an increase in attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices, with 16 reported in nine cities over the past week.
Notably, the Muslim Brotherhood specifically called on the military to protect its Cairo headquarters. There are significant political undertones to this message. Calling on the army to protect the headquarters of a political party, as if it were the seat of government, would imply that the Muslim Brotherhood expects the army to recognize and protect its influence.
This is not something the military is prepared to do. An army spokesman responded to the request by saying, "The Egyptian armed forces are only loyal to the people and land of Egypt, and are playing their due role in protecting the nation." He also said Egyptian soldiers and policemen are stationed at the entry points to Greater Cairo as part of the army's plan to increase security measures on highways and main roads. In other words, the military will do its part to serve the people, but it will not obey a Muslim Brotherhood request to protect and uphold Morsi's decree by standing between protesters and Brotherhood offices that are under attack. However, Interior Ministry forces, including police, have clashed with protesters trying to attack some of the Brotherhood's offices.
The military is essentially telling Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters that they got what they wished for. The Brotherhood wanted the military out of Egyptian politics, and the military is going to be very careful about intervening at this stage. However, the military can use the demonstrations to pressure the Brotherhood and put Morsi back in check. It should be remembered that Morsi's presidential candidacy was only made possible by the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which earlier rejected the Brotherhood's preferred candidate.
It may be that the military predicted that Morsi would eventually miscalculate in thinking that the foreign policy victory achieved with the Gaza cease-fire would give the movement the momentum to make bolder moves on domestic policy to consolidate its power. We need to watch closely for how the current demonstrations can be exploited against the Muslim Brotherhood -- as we did when the military used demonstrations to oust former President Hosni Mubarak -- especially with reports of Salafists and other groups taking up arms and with the potential for more violent clashes on the horizon.
Later today protesters stormed offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in three cities, witnesses said, Al-Masry Al-Youm reported. In Alexandria, protesters threw furniture and equipment from the office into the street while Central Security Forces officers refused to intervene, an unnamed source within the Alexandria Security Directorate said. In Mansoura, protesters set the office on fire and clashed with supporters of the Egyptian President. In Damanhour, the capital of Beheira governorate, police used teargas to prevent hundreds of protesters from entering the Brotherhood office. The unrest in Egypt is escalating, and the Muslim Brotherhood does not appear to believe it can contain it.
Nevertheless at this juncture, the protests are unlikely to escalate into a national crisis that could unseat the president, but if they get out of control they could affect his hold on power.
What is clear now that the fall of Mubarak did not answer the question of the future of Egypt's government. Nor was it answered by the election of Morsi. The question of whether the military regime was finished, whether it would support the civilian government or whether it was a power unto itself remained open. It is still open, but maybe it is now going to be answered.
The military's decision to refrain from assisting Morsi suggests that for now, at least, the president does not command the military and the basic reality of Egypt since 1952 remains modified, but not ultimately changed.
Because Egypt remains the most substantial and potentially powerful country in the region, questions remain about the country's long-term relationship with Israel and the United States and the future of Islamist power in the Arab world. A great deal rests on what the military does now.
The Brotherhood's miscalculation could lead to a weakening of Morsi at a time when the movement needs a strong president to help set it up for the parliamentary elections.