There is a rumor that President Mohamed Morsi might be willing to annul the decree he issued last month, however he would not back dawn on the vote for the new constitution. The country's main opposition parties however maintain that the draft constitution is biased and have rejected Morsi's call for dialogue.
From Egypt to Syria to Jordan, relics of the post-Ottoman Middle East are struggling for relevancy amid a rising Islamist tide. Whether Nasserite or monarchist, the models that have defined this region over the past century are either being altered significantly or headed for obsolescence.
In Egypt today opposition protesters have demonstrated outside the presidential palace in Cairo, after breaking through a barricade erected by security forces. Whereby it should be understood that Morsi did not call on the Republican Guard the way U.S. President Barack Obama would call on the National Guard. The military acted only when it wanted to.
The Egyptian military thus remains the central power in Egypt. Despite efforts by the Muslim Brotherhood and President Mohammed Morsi to gain control over the senior military leadership, the Brotherhood does not control the military. The Brotherhood is not totally powerless, but it is the weaker of the two. This dynamic is fundamental to understanding where Egypt is and what decisions its leadership can make domestically and in foreign relations.
Notably, the military does not want to completely destroy the presidency. It needs a civilian partner, and the Brotherhood currently is its only viable option. But it does not want the Brotherhood to become too powerful either.
Important however is that although the Brotherhood previously rejected such concessions, the new draft charter represents the group's realization that it needs the military to advance its agenda in the current environment. An article published by the Washington Institute on 3 December in fact spells out 'the Brotherhoods deal with the Military'.
Meaning: First, the new constitution grants the military relative autonomy over its own affairs. Article 195 holds that the defense minister must be a member of the armed forces "appointed from among its officers," thereby sparing the military from civilian oversight. Article 197 similarly establishes a National Defense Council to oversee the military's budgets; at least eight of the council's fifteen seats must be held by high-ranking military officials, avoiding the parliamentary oversight that the generals feared. Meanwhile, Article 198 maintains the military judiciary as "an independent judiciary" and allows civilians to be tried before military courts for "crimes that harm the armed forces."
Second, the constitution grants the military substantial influence -- and perhaps even veto power -- over the conduct of war. Article 146 states that the president cannot "declare war, or send the armed forces outside state territory, except after consultation with the National Defense Council and the approval of the House of Representatives with a majority of its members." The text also seemingly equalizes the defense minister and the president during wartime: Article 146 calls the president the "supreme commander of the armed forces," while Article 195 declares the defense minister the "commander-in-chief of the armed forces."
This is the reality in Egypt. The situation has been clouded with uncertainty since August, when Morsi forced the retirement of several senior military leaders, including Supreme Council of the Armed Forces chief Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and armed forces chief Sami Annan. The question was whether Morsi's moves made the military subordinate to civilian authority.
Whereas the unrest this past week stems from Morsi’s November 22 decree, in which he granted himself near-absolute powers, including immunity from judicial oversight of his decisions. Morsi has been pushing for a constitutional referendum in December despite the opposition’s outspoken criticism of the document, which under the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists's pressure is designed to keep “the principles of sharia” law as the main source of legislation.
Thursday then, the military put tanks outside the palace and 3pm curfew was proclaimed. Even so, hundreds of people streamed into the streets at nightfall, some of them demanding Morsi’s November decrees be retracted, others thrusting their support behind the Egyptian leaders – and many others still just protesting the recent deaths.
The military allowed the situation to evolve until Morsi was desperate and had to negotiate with the military leadership. A bargain may be forthcoming, but ultimately the deal they make matters less than the balance of power. The fact that Morsi had no choice but to ask for the military's help -- and the fact that the military did not act before negotiations -- confirms that Morsi does not control the military. The military has shown the public that it, not the civilian government, is the arbiter of power in Egypt. Notably, the military does not want to completely destroy the presidency. It needs a civilian partner, and the Brotherhood currently is its only viable option. But it does not want the Brotherhood to become too powerful either.
Soon after that President Morsi addressed the nation accusing the foreign-funded opposition of trying to incite violence against his legitimacy. "I separate the legitimate opposition from the vandals who committed violence,” said Morsi. “The opposition thinks Article 6 is a problem. I won’t insist on keeping it, and anyway, the decree ends after the referendum.”
During the constitutional referendum Morsi is also unlikely to compromise because of his intimate familiarity with the Brotherhood's unparalleled mobilizing capabilities. Specifically, the Brotherhood is structured such that its Guidance Office can direct thousands of five-to-eight-person cells known as families, which are situated in practically every Egyptian neighborhood, to any location that it chooses. During last year's revolution, this structure was vital to ensuring a mass Brotherhood turnout at the uprising's most pivotal moments, and Morsi himself was responsible for commanding Brotherhood cadres' activities within Tahrir Square. The Brotherhood remains extremely confident that it can overwhelm its current opponents, and Morsi is unlikely to respond to protests that his own supporters can exceed.
This is, in fact, precisely what the Muslim Brotherhood will do, when it is likely to unite with Salafist organizations and hold a mass demonstration in front of Cairo University. For Morsi, the Islamists' inevitably impressive turnout will likely affirm his claim that "around 90 percent" of Egyptians support him, and validate his attempt to rush the Islamist-drafted constitution to a national referendum. But for Morsi's secularist opponents, the Islamists' mass mobilization to support a naked power grab represents a call to arms, and they are bracing for the worst.
Add to this Syria and Jordan
In Syria, rebels were closing in on Damascus while U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with her Russian counterpart Thursday apparently to discuss how to avoid a chemical weapons disaster in Syria following the departure of President Bashar al Assad. Russia may also be using its interactions with the United States to present counter evidence to recently leaked U.S. intelligence claims about Syria's chemical weapons activity. Moscow's intent would be to undermine what appears to be a psychological campaign by the United States aimed at further fracturing the al Assad government through fear of a foreign military intervention.
From the point of view of Moscow, a beneficiary of the embattled Alawite regime, maintaining as much of the state machinery as possible (including a prominent role for the minority Alawites) is the best path forward to stabilize Syria and at the same time ensure a strong Russian stake in the Levant. The only adjustment that needs to be made to the system, as far as Russia is concerned, is the removal of the al Assad clan through some sort of amnesty deal. The United States and Turkey are also trying to avoid a level of state collapse that would draw them into a military campaign in Syria, but are looking for a larger share of power for Syria’s Sunni majority that would limit Iranian influence and (to Turkey’s benefit) embolden the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. In other words, possible adjustments to the Syrian military republic model remain under debate and may even be well beyond the control of the negotiators in question.
In Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom is struggling to avoid concessions that will empower an already-emboldened Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition that is now openly calling for the downfall of the monarchy. Jordanian King Abdullah II spent Thursday on a visit to the West Bank to demonstrate his support for Fatah leader and Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after the latter's U.N. bid for Palestinian recognition. This visit embodies the obsolescence of the post-Ottoman era. The U.N. bid notwithstanding, Fatah and the secular left of the Nasserite era have long lost their credibility in the Palestinian arena. Hamas and its Islamist allies are meanwhile making strides with the regional rise of the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of fraying ancient regimes. In the latest Gaza crisis, Abbas could not even attempt to claim to speak on behalf of Gaza in trying to defuse the conflict. Yet Abbas and Abdullah continue to visit each other on a regular basis, unaware or perhaps deliberately blind to the idea that they are now relics of another time.