Egypt’s military coup is now nearly complete. That may be distressing for Egyptian democracy, but it could help the Israel-Egypt relationship.
The June 17 decision by military rulers in Egypt to rewrite the country’s constitution — a move that strips much of the power of the Egyptian presidency — confirms what many skeptics had warned about since Hosni Mubarak was deposed in February 2011: This wasn’t so much a revolution as a military coup.
It was the Egyptian army that played the decisive role during the 2011 uprising, siding with the people against the regime and overthrowing Mubarak. It was the military’s leaders who then assumed control of the country. And it was the army that again intervened this week in the middle of a presidential election that would have delivered control of the country to the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi.
A few days before last weekend’s presidential vote, in which Morsi edged Ahmed Shafik, a former Mubarak-era prime minister and air force general, the military dissolved the country’s Islamic Brotherhood–dominated parliament. It did so by declaring that up to one-third of the legislators were elected illegally. The Brotherhood controlled 47 percent of seats in the body after Islamist parties captured more than 65 percent of the votes in Egypt’s first real democratic elections six months ago.
The moves against the parliament and the presidency make clear that Egypt’s military rulers are unwilling to cede power to a democratically elected government, especially if elections empower the Muslim Brotherhood.
“With this document, Egypt has completely left the realm of the Arab Spring and entered the realm of military dictatorship,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said in widely quoted comments.
“It is a soft military coup that unfortunately many people will support out of fear of an Islamist takeover of the state,” Bahgat told the Associated Press.
That may be bad news for democracy and the Egyptian revolution, but it could be good for Israel.
Ever since Mubarak was overthrown, Israeli leaders have wrung their hands over increasingly bellicose signals from their neighbor to the south, once a key ally and broker between Israel and the Palestinians. Leading Egyptian political figures have threatened to cancel or promised to “review” the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
In April, the state-owned Egyptian gas company canceled its contract to supply Israel with natural gas; its pipeline to Israel has been attacked 14 times since the country’s revolution. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has been used as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against Israel, including a deadly one on June 18.
If the Muslim Brotherhood, the parent organization of Hamas, were to take control of Egypt, Israelis feared things would get much worse.
After Israel was struck June 15 by Grad rockets, unnamed Israeli security analysts told the daily Haaretz that the Muslim Brotherhood had encouraged the attacks. It’s not clear whether the analysis is true or who launched the rockets. Neither was it immediately clear who was behind the June 18 border attack that killed an Israeli contractor; Israeli forces returning fire killed two of the attackers from Egypt.
Despite this latest move, it’s far from clear whether Egypt’s military rulers — led by army field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, or SCAF — have successfully fended off the challenge by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Many Egyptians have denounced as illegal the dissolution of parliament and unilateral rewriting of the country’s constitution by the military leaders.
“The SCAF has become a state above the state with wide legislative and executive powers, a veto on constitutional and other political matters, and stands immune to any challenges,” a liberal member of Egypt’s parliament, Amr Hamzawy, wrote in Arabic comments posted to Twitter and then reported by Egyptian daily Al-Ahram. “We need to use all peaceful means to challenge this dangerous scenario, as it is a national duty and a necessity.”
Still, the election gives the Brotherhood’s Morsi some modicum of authority. Whether the Brotherhood will use that authority to challenge the army or seek some sort of accommodation with Egypt’s military rulers remains unclear.