On June 24th, the Muslim Broterhood’s candidate, Mohamed Mursi, won the Presidential election in Egypt, defeating Ahmad Shafiq, a candidate who was largely seen as representative of the old regime. Mursi’s win was celebrated by many pro-revolutionaries in Egypt, secular and religious alike, because it was seen as a milestone victory in safeguarding the revolution that began on January 25, 2011 and culminated in the ouster of the US-backed dictator of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak. Mursi’s victory was hailed as a step forward in the revolution, whereas a victory for Ahmad Shafiq would have certainly been seen as a step back from the revolutionaries’ perspective.
However, many have been quick to caution against celebrating too quickly. Although the pro-revolutionary candidate did win the election, power is still largely concentrated in the hands of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces. In fact, a few days before the election, SCAF issued a highly controversial Constitutional Declaration, which is largely seen as an attempt by SCAF to consolidate what was supposed to be its temporary powers for the long-term. Among these powers, the Constitutional Declaration gives total power over military affairs to SCAF, rather than the President, and also declares that the President can only declare war with the approval of SCAF. In addition to that, it is the head of SCAF, and not the President, who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces. SCAF also granted itself a very large role in the Constitution-writing process, including the ability to form and dismiss the Constituent Assembly responsible for writing the constitution.
With all these expanded powers SCAF accorded to itself on the eve of the election, it is to be expected that many are pessimistic. It appears that with this assault by SCAF, as well as the dismissal of the democratically elected parliament by Egypt’s judiciary a few weeks ago, the President has little power left over for himself, and Egypt is beginning to look more and more like a military dictatorship. However, this situation calls for what Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci would call, “Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” While it may very well be true that institutionally, the President is quite powerless, there are many other sources of power that President Mursi can tap into if he wishes to wrestle power away from SCAF.
“Power” is not only what is accorded to people by institutional documents, such as a constitution. Power is a measure of what people are capable of achieving. Although institutionally, SCAF has all the power, there are other, less conventional sources of power that Morsy can use to challenge SCAF rule, despite him having very little powers according to the Constitutional Declaration. The first source of power he has is the legitimacy of having won an election by the masses. SCAF leaders are unelected military leaders unaccountable to anyone. The fact that Morsy was chosen by a “mandate of the people” gives him more power and legitimacy in whatever he chooses to do, which will be especially important should he decide to challenge SCAF rule. Another source of power is the power from the street, or, to put it bluntly, the ‘power of the people’. Even after Morsi’s win, revolutionaries are still camping out in Tahrir Square because they know that despite Morsi’s win, the work is not over, and the revolution continues as long as SCAF is still around. Morsi can certainly use this pressure from the street to his advantage and openly side with them against SCAF. After all, it was this pressure from the street that resulted in Mubarak’s ouster. Thus, despite not having much power institutionally and officially, Morsi can combine the power he gets from an election win with the power of the people on the street who refuse to go home until the revolution is complete, and challenge SCAF’s power-grab.
But will Morsi even decide to challenge SCAF, or has that ship sailed, and has he already betrayed the revolution and cut a compromise in the form of a power-sharing deal with SCAF? That remains to be seen. For the time being it seems Morsy is focusing on quelling seculars’ fears that his agenda is to impose Islamic law on Egypt (for example, he recently announced his vice president will be a female Coptic Christian, because, despite being the revolutionary candidate, he is still the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate). In any case, there is certainly a reason for pessimism when it comes to SCAF control over Egypt, but there should also be optimism on the revolutionary possibilities that Egyptians can achieve, if the people will it. Morsi has already hinted that he may tap into this source of power, stating, “The people are the source of all powers. They suffered marginalization, poverty and injustice. It’s time to retrieve their will and freedom, decent living and justice.” Whether this is typical flowery presidential rhetoric, or a foreshadowing of Morsi’s future strategy to confront SCAF, will be revealed as his presidency unfolds.