The Reckoning

Behind Egypt’s Vote Count, It’s Still the (Military’s) Economy, Stupid

They bake bread, too. 

Photograph by Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

The world watches and waits, an electoral commission of dubious independence counts the ballots and sorts through more than 400 protests lodged by the two men vying to be the democratically elected president of Egypt. Or, at least, that was the feel-good story before the vote.

In fact, the choice Egyptians faced after a raucous first round was miserable, pitting the ancien regime, in the person of former Mubarak-era prime minister and air force Gen. Ahmed Shafik, against the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, Mohamed Morsi. 

Morsi led in the preliminary vote count Monday and duly declared victory. But everything I’m hearing is that the vote was genuinely close, and because Cairo’s votes had not been tallied when the preliminary vote count was announced, it is quite possible Shafik could win fairly.

But that simply is not feasible at this point, thanks to the army, or more precisely, the cabal that leads it: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. On the eve of Sunday’s vote, the SCAF muddied the waters irretrievably, dissolving the Brotherhood-led parliament and claiming the constitutional right to veto virtually anything the new president or future parliament does on the eve of Sunday’s election.

This ham-handed attempt to impose its will has backfired. Now, whatever the vote count, a Shafik victory inevitably would look like a stolen election, risking international isolation and a severe, possibly catastrophic backlash.

The last time a North African military stole an election away from a moderate Islamist party this late in the game it touched off a civil war as bloody as any in the latter half of the 20th century. It was December 1991, and Algeria, in the thrall of a previous wave of democratization (1989), allowed free election for the first time in its history. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), a moderate Islamist party, won an outright majority.

But in January 1992, the military stepped in just before parliament was seated, declaring the vote null and void. The resulting unrest, pitting a terrorist group known as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) against increasingly vengeful security forces, mutated into a de facto civil war that raged until an amnesty was granted in 2006, by which point some 150,000 people had been slaughtered.

This may not be Egypt’s fate—Egypt is relatively more prosperous, much more open to the outside world, and an older, more secure and cohesive society than Algeria. In the months since the January 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, the SCAF has also shown it can work with the Brothers as long as the military’s veto is maintained.

But therein lies the rub: Over the past 18 months, as unsteady democratic progress has been made, the Brotherhood-led parliament has been asking uncomfortable questions about the military’s economic empire. That’s what parliaments do, after all.  

The army doesn’t much approve of that idea. Much as the Chinese and Soviet militaries once ran huge swaths of those economies, Egypt’s generals are involved in a lot more than war games, weapons manufacturing, and parades. The army dominates domestic production of many things, including agri-business, steel and petro-chemicals—on top of the assembly lines and maintenance facilities it controls for the M1A1 Abrams tanks and F-16 fighters it purchases with its annual $1.3 billion stipend of military aid from Washington.

Shana Marshall, an expert of Egypt’s military who works as a research fellow at the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis, traces how from military roots the SCAF has acquired power plants, steel mills, ports, railroads, investment banks, industrial bakeries, appliance manufacturers, and countless other assets that ensure its officers don’t have to rely on their federal salaries.

In public, the SCAF and their man Shafik don’t talk much about this empire—which operates under the shadowy National Service Products Organisation (NSPO). Instead, they prefer to cast the Muslim Brothers as a second Iranian Revolution. This is nonsense for a variety of reasons, and while no one should underestimate the intolerance of some Brotherhood views, the proof is in Morsi’s public positions.

On economics, foreign policy and tolerance for Egypt’s minorities, Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party—the Brotherhood’s de facto political wing—is going to disappoint the true radicals—the Salafists—more than it will please them. Morsi supports freedom of the press, the Camp David peace with Israel, a market-based economy, education for women, and the rights of Coptic Christians.  

But Morsi would not foreswear reopening the question of controversial privatizations that took place under Mubarak and moved state assets at fire-sale prices into the hands of his family friends and senior officers. And parliamentary investigations of the NSPO cut close to the SCAF bone.

CFR fellow Steven Cook, author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square, told me over dinner in London this week that he believes the army is bent on protecting its booty in spite of its desire to get out of the business of running the day-to-day affairs of government. They prefer to have a veto and to be left free to make money in the meanwhile.

That attitude, he says, is leading the army to underestimate the backlash that imposing Shafik (or even allowing his legitimate victory) would cause.

“The army thinks it can merely contain Tahrir Square and prevent protests from getting out of hand,” Cook says. “But short of a Tiananmen-type reaction, I do not believe this is realistic. And I do not believe the SCAF would order line officers—the captains, majors and colonels in charge on the front lines—to open fire on protesters. Some of these officers might order such things in the heat of a confrontation, but I don’t think SCAF would risk such an order not being fulfilled, and thus the army’s cohesion being put at risk.”

Cook is not Brotherhood cheerleader—he concedes they could turn out to be as undemocratic in their own way as Mubarak. He also concedes that some in the SCAF view this as the national end game—a worldview that justifies any outrage.

Let’s hope not. A victory by Morsi with his wings a bit clipped by a watchful military may not be the best outcome for Egypt given the dynamics at play. Holding out for some pure form of democracy might provoke a real coup, not just the “soft coup” talked about on Cairo’s streets today. But overturning Morsi’s election at this point is even more of a risk. For if his harshest critics are right and he is merely a front man for the wolves of the Islamic right, then nothing would hasten their rise more than imposing a Mubarak retread.