Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling dissolving the Islamist-dominated parliament elected just six months ago turns Egypt’s already rough-and-tumble political situation on its head. While all eyes have been on the presidential elections later this week, the parliament was in many ways more important: Charged with writing the new constitution, the parliament was about 80 percent Islamist. As the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi an-Nour Party were forced by their new positions to dispense with the opportunistic populism of opposition and get down to the hard business of governance, they found their support waning; the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate was unable to pass the 30 percent threshold in the first round of presidential elections.
It is this wakeup call upon which the Egyptian military hopes to capitalize. They believe that if they can have a “do-over” they can reverse the populist wave which the Islamists rode during their first electoral test and prevent a situation in which the Islamists, whose popularity has been on the same trajectory as Facebook stock, were able to lock in influence no longer matched by popular support.
Still, the Egyptian military is playing a very dangerous game. It has shown few new ideas during the campaign. Egyptians will not allow their mantra of restoring law-and-order replace genuine desire for reform. Indeed, Egyptians are right to be cynical about their military. While Americans celebrate generals for wartime success, Egyptians have never won a war, unless one counts their intervention in the Yemeni civil war, where Egypt’s greatest legacy now is the spread of giardia from Egyptian soldiers relieving themselves in wells nearly a half century ago. Rather, most Egyptians know their generals as businessmen. It is simply the Egyptian military elites’ desire to preserve the status quo and their bank accounts which guide their positions.
The danger, however, is popular outrage. Islamist clerics have already made clear they would take to the streets to fight any election which did not go their way. It has been more than two decades since the Algerian government, stunned by an Islamist victory in their 1991 elections and the victors’ promise to revise the constitution, decided to cancel the elections, unleashing a brutal civil war that killed perhaps 200,000. The major reason why Algerians did not get caught up in the Arab Spring protests was that the scars of violence during the 1990s remain too fresh. That an Arab socialist rather than an Islamist regime now holds sway may convince the Egyptian military that the risks and costs were worth it.
In Algeria, however, the population is largely spread along its 600-mile coastline. In Egypt, most of the 80 million are crammed into the narrow Nile River Valley. Egypt’s court and its generals are taking a large risk, indeed. If history repeats, the cost could be much higher.