The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), gets most of the attention these days when discussing Egypt. Criticism flows easily and the FJP’s reputation has definitely been sullied and bloodied because of their numerous sectarian and undemocratic policies. But, what appears most remarkable is that the military establishment has been relatively unscathed in the polarized battles that have erupted the last several months. In fact, this is not accidental. It is the result of very clever political maneuvering by the country’s military leaders.
It is certainly true that FJP leader, President Mohamed Morsi, made himself an easy target by recklessly misusing his extensive constitutional authority to appoint cronies and to issue unilateral decrees.
Just in the last few months, he stacked the Constituent Assembly with an unrepresentative majority that wrote a very controversial new constitution lacking internationally recognized rights for women and for workers. It was ultimately passed in December but, notably, with only one third of eligible voters showing up at the polls.
Then, Morsi shocked the nation by issuing a decree disallowing any court oversight of his decisions, an embarrassingly blatant power grab that was formally reversed only after huge public demonstrations.
But the president did not stop there. On the heels of his “hotly contested decree granting the Egyptian president unlimited authority,” as Erin Radford reported in the Dec. 11, 2011 Cairo Review, Morsi’s amendments to the nation’s 1976 trade union law “signals potential suppression of the right to freely form unions.” Radford is Middle East and North Africa program officer at the AFL-CIO supported Solidarity Center in Washington DC.
Fatma Ramadan, an executive board member of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), also was quoted in Radford’s article warning that “Morsi is clearly preparing a systematic crackdown against Egypt’s union movement, against the right to strike, against the right to organize and against union plurality.”
Igniting further opposition in late December, the president padded his FJP majority in the 270-member upper chamber of parliament by appointing an additional 90 delegates.
These are, indeed, grievously divisive and offensive policies arousing critical attention against the FJP government but it is, nonetheless, still noteworthy that the military is largely given a free pass. How can this happen?
Since the historic 1952 military officers’ coup overthrowing the constitutional monarchy and ending British occupation, the Egyptian military has very craftily preferred a backstage role, mostly leaving overt repression to the notorious Ministry of Interior and mostly leaving government to nominal civilian rule.
As you might suspect, this is neither altruism nor enlightenment by the corrupt coterie of generals who propped up Mubarak’s decaying regime for 29 years. On the contrary, away from the spotlight, the generals are better able to stealthfully conduct the very lucrative business of accumulating personal wealth and private property.
Credible diplomats, leading academics and scholarly economists generally agree the military controls 15 to 35 percent of the economy. The wide variance in estimates is itself testimony to the secretive nature of these military dealings and it has gotten even worse under the FJP government.
The military has never had civilian oversight and the new constitution written largely under Muslim Brotherhood influence has even further “immunized it against accountability” writes Cairo University professor Dina El Khawaga in the Dec. 27, 2012 Egypt Independent.
In fact, even with a new post-Mubarak constitution, it is still a mystery how large the military budget actually is, how much property the military owns and how billions of U.S. aid dollars are spent. This data is considered a state secret. Neither the government nor the new constitution challenges any of these privileges of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Nonetheless, it should be obvious that unless the militarization of the economy is eliminated and unless the curtain of secrecy surrounding the armed forces is lifted, there will be no significant social or economic change in Egypt.
Marriage of Convenience
Despite their historical reluctance, the military command was forced to the forefront on February 11, 2011. The startling fact is that the military was the lone surviving institution left intact after Mubarak’s forced resignation.
In the days immediately following the regime’s collapse, the parliament was dissolved, the constitution suspended, the cabinet dismissed, the ruling National Democratic Party outlawed and the secret police formally disbanded (in name only).
In addition, Mubarak himself was arrested along with several of his cronies, including his two sons. Meanwhile, the ban on exiles was lifted and political prisoners were freed. This was an incredibly huge victory for the 18-day massive wave of protests and labor strikes.
It was also a series of very astute moves by a system under siege. Without question, in their new starring role, the military proved to be even more sophisticated and polished than their deposed benefactor, the distant and detached Mubarak.
As such, the generals clearly understood it was best to shield themselves from social criticism by returning backstage as soon as possible.
Thus, the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cautiously and reluctantly selected the Muslim Brotherhood to share leadership, primarily because of their considerable prestige and authority among millions of people.
This influence was earned. The Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed for most of its existence, its leaders banned, imprisoned and often tortured. Yet, the organization founded in the 1920s, continued its extensive charity work and religious instruction even under repression, gaining profound respect from millions in the impoverished communities they served.
As a result, it was alone among opposition forces to successfully build a substantial organization during the difficult years of dictatorship. To this day, it remains the best organized social organization in the country with its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, reaping the benefits through its ascension to government positions of power and influence.
It is extremely important to understand that the Brotherhood is a genuine mass organization based on millions of poor Egyptian masses. Because of its mass roots and because it has also embraced conservative International Monetary Fund economic policies of privatization, reductions in subsidies to the poor and opposition to strikes and independent unions, it has become a powerful ally of the ruling powers in Egypt.
But, at the same time, those same mass roots and social composition of the Muslim Brotherhood make it vulnerable to enormous pressures from below and, therefore, despite their policy agreements with the ruling sectors in Egypt, they are not considered permanent nor reliable bourgeois allies.
Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood was not originally the military leaders preferred choice as an ally, it was more like their best choice - for the moment.
Muslim Brotherhood Role
Arab nationalistic and anti-imperialist policies of the charismatic Gamal Nasser were eroded and eventually ended after his death in 1970 by his successor, president Anwar Sadat, who notoriously announced, “I am a Muslim president of a Muslim state.”
His U.S.-backed policies completely altered the political shape of Egyptian politics away from the nation’s powerful and unifying Arab identification into the dark abyss of religious conflict and division. Thus, religious pretexts were used to drum up support for conservative economic policies that began selling off nationalized state properties to regime favorites.
At the same time, the government orchestrated attacks on workers and academic oppositionists who were hounded and persecuted as Marxist atheists and secular opponents of Islam. Muslim Brotherhood members often joined in these physical attacks.
The military continues this devilish paradigm with the Brotherhood who traditionally and enthusiastically whip up religious fervor in support of their policies. Thus, the unity of the oppressed majority is prevented and the clarity of social and economic class issues concealed by obscurant religious references.
This explains why the Muslim Brotherhood is no real threat to the property elite in Egypt and why they are currently such a useful ally for the military command.
Making them even more useful, they have absolutely no affinity for the independent unions, for the right to strike or for increases in the standard of living. The Brotherhood fully embraces the austere economic policies of the past, so much so that Kamal Abu Eita, president of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), noted in the October 15, 2012 Egyptian Independent that “Nowadays we have more unionists who have been sacked, subjected to trials and unemployment than under the Mubarak regime.”
While the mass movement of youth has been severely attacked and attempts to build independent labor organizations undermined in the last two years, the spirit of the January 25 Freedom and Justice movement has not been defeated, not by a long shot.
Is a Bitter Divorce in the Offing?
Thus, strikes and protests are sure to continue and at some point, the FJP government may become too unstable and too much of a liability for the property owners and generals. If this happens, numerous examples in modern world history record a likely nefarious outcome.
The FJP-government could be displaced by a military-backed civilian savior with far more entrenched and reliable bourgeois connections who will offer stability to millions exhausted by continuous struggle against a government that conceals its alliance with the rich and powerful and camouflages its wretched social and economic policies with discordant religious appeals.
In the meantime, most of the opposition fire is aimed at the Muslim Brotherhood and that suits the military and the monied rulers of Egypt just fine.
This piece first appeared in CounterPunch
Carl Finamore is Machinist Lodge 1781 union delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO and hopes to return to Egypt for the second anniversary celebrations of the revolution on January 25, 2013. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org