As opaque as ever
Does the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party really want to head a coalition government, asks Amani Maged
He doesn't make many public appearances, so when he does you take notice. This time, moreover, his statements were bombshells. Khairat Al-Shater, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, announced that its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), planned to form a coalition government with other political forces and parties because the Muslim Brothers were fed up with the Kamal El-Ganzouri government. Other Muslim Brotherhood and FJP leaders echoed the position in subsequent statements. Indeed, FJP chief Mohamed Mursi has reiterated it during almost every meeting with foreign envoys recently.
Some observers believe the move is an attempt to deflect mounting censure levelled against the Muslim Brotherhood primarily by the intelligentsia and press, and to defuse anger against younger members of the group who have been accused of betraying the revolution.
Others argue that the Muslim Brothers are in earnest. They point to a flurry of meetings and communications, as well as to the names that have been posited by some private media outlets as possible candidates for ministerial portfolios.
Among the sceptics is political science professor Nevine Musaad who finds the Muslim Brotherhood's arguments justifying their right to form a government questionable, not least the assertion that now an elected People's Assembly expressing the popular will is in place a government should follow.
"Popular will", says Musaad, has become a very loose term that can assume different meanings depending on the political context and which has lost virtually all credibility. When secularist forces sought to establish a set of general principles for the new constitution Islamists objected by citing the "popular will" which they claim supports the Constitutional Declaration that gives the constitutional assembly, created by the People's Assembly, the right to draft the constitution. But now the Muslim Brothers appear happy to ignore that same popular will as reflected by a Constitutional Declaration which does not give parliament the right to form a government before the presidential elections are held.
Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration confers on SCAF 10 powers, only a few of which can be transferred to the elected parliament. Article 33 of the declaration establishes these as the power to determine and legislate for the general policy of the state and to set and monitor the national budget. All other powers, including the right to appoint members to the People's Assembly, to represent that state at home and abroad, to issue amnesties and to appoint and dismiss the prime minister, deputy prime ministers and cabinet members are retained by SCAF under the Constitutional Declaration.
The Muslim Brothers maintain that they are not alone in demanding a coalition government but the reality, says Musaad, is more complicated.
"If we listen to the actual voices of the Egyptian street we find opinion converges on two fundamental demands. The first is the immediate handover of power to a civil authority, with differences over who exactly this authority should be. The second is the call for a new government, with differences over the actual composition of that government."
"It is very curious that the Muslim Brothers are suddenly ready to form a coalition government yet, simultaneously, remain adamant in their support for the original timeframe for the handover of power by June or, at best, a little earlier. Why the rush to assume the lesser authority and the simultaneous lack of urgency when it comes to the handover of greater political authority? This position can only be explained by the logic of political calculations and the exigencies of power balances."
Musaad points out another inconsistency in the Muslim Brotherhood's stance. The Muslim Brotherhood has argued that the Ganzouri government has been powerless to tackle the deteriorating security situation. But the security- breakdown argument begs numerous questions. One has to do with the value of the recently formed People's Assembly fact-finding committee charged with investigating political violence. Musaad wonders if the haste to form a new government is actually a ruse to pre-empt the findings of that committee. Another question has to do with the length of time and conditions needed to restore security and stability.
"What kind of stability can we expect in light of government reshuffles with respect to which, at the level of the Arab world, Egypt now rivals Jordan in the brevity of the lifespan of its governments? Consider that the average lifespan of a Jordanian government is about a year, whereas Egypt has already had four governments in the last 12 months."
Even more perplexing for Musaad were Shater's remarks that the domestic security situation could be handled effectively only with popular support as expressed through an FJP-led coalition government. "Does this mean that the people would deliberately refuse to take part in the preservation of law and order without such a government? Or that the people are deliberately trying to stir chaos in order to hasten the creation of a government headed by the Muslim Brothers?" asks Musaad.
The camp that supports the creation of a new government consists primarily of the Muslim Brothers, the Wasat and the Salafis' Nour Party. A coalition or "national salvation" government would restore stability, pave the way for investment and hasten the reform of state institutions, they argue.
Sobhi Saleh, a key FJP figure, maintains that the Muslim Brothers are acting on the premise that they are a parliamentary majority and must now assume the responsibilities that come with that, especially given the Ganzouri government has proven incapable of addressing the security situation.
Other Muslim Brotherhood sources voice similar arguments, insisting that since the Muslim Brothers know they will be charged with forming a government at some point they would rather perform the task as soon as possible, before the economic situation worsens and further complicates the task. Deliberations, say the same sources, are underway and have even broached the question of who will serve as prime minister. MB Deputy Supreme Guide Al-Shater and FJP chief Mursi seem the most likely candidates. While Muslim Brotherhood circles see the former as the strongest candidate they also believe that the Muslim Brotherhood organisation still needs him. On the other hand, if Mursi assumes the premiership the FJP will need to elect another chairman.
The Muslim Brothers' second largest partner in parliament, the Nour Party, may well support the move but is wavering. Nour Party spokesman Nader Bakkar says that the party is currently contemplating whether to join the FJP in a coalition government or to give the Ganzouri government more time to rectify its performance. He added that the Nour Party supports the "departure of SCAF from the political scene" on the condition that the departure is "carefully planned so as not to precipitate a catastrophe".
Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya has not fallen in step with the Muslim Brotherhood position. Safwat Abdel-Ghani, a member of the group's Shura Council, said Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya is focussed on bringing forward the handover of power to 30 May rather than 30 June, the date set by SCAF.
"We, as an Islamist group, do not want a new government now because it would take more than a month to form, during which time conflicts will arise between political forces. Also, in this delicate period, such a government would be doomed to fail," he said.
Presidential candidates are divided over the question of forming a new government. Presidential hopeful Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh disapproves of the idea in principle because it would trigger rifts between political forces. Hamdeen Sabahi, on the other hand, is in favour because of the poor performance of the Ganzouri government.
Speculation over the imminent formation of a coalition government, or a "government that might be a coalition government," as it was modified in a recent statement by FJP chairman Mohamed Mursi, may prove theoretical. The Muslim Brotherhood's sudden "anger" at the Ganzouri government, if it is a ploy to counter the wave of criticism against the group, could just as suddenly turn to wholehearted approval. Or it could simply be a tactical manoeuvre ahead of springing another surprise with bearings on the new constitution.