Riding the waves of the populace's hatred of Israel and the U.S.
The majority Islamist Egyptian parliament moved on several fronts in the past two days to flex its muscles and challenge the authority of the military-appointed government. The Muslim Brothers, represented by the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and their Salfis allies, who make up 70% of the members in parliament, have decided to engineer a "no confidence" vote in the government of Prime Minister Kamal Al Ganzouri, force the withdrawal of the Israeli ambassador from Cairo, and will vote to refuse $1 billion in aid from the US government. These actions, which took place on the eve of the first day of candidate registration for the presidential elections, threaten to instigate a political crisis in the country -- as well as with the United States and Israel.
The Islamists are making a move to challenge the military because of two recent incidents that have angered the Egyptian people and made the government even more unpopular than it was previously.
The first incident occurred on February 1 when a huge riot broke out following a soccer game in Port Said. Authorities said that 79 people died and hundreds were injured when fans of the home team swarmed the field after a rare win, attacking opposing fans and players, and overwhelming the small number of riot police who were deployed for the game. The next day, riots broke out in Cairo and elsewhere that killed two and injured more than 900. The people blame the military for the pitifully inadequate security at the stadium. Most of the dead died of asphyxiation when people trying to exit the melee were blocked by a locked gate. There were also questions about how fans had been able to bring knives and other weapons into the stadium.
The second incident that has angered parliament and the Egyptian people was the lifting of the travel ban on the 16 Americans who are on trial for illegal funding of the NGOs they worked for. Parliament believes that the government caved in to American pressure and threats from Congress to deny Egypt the $1.3 billion in aid the US gives to Egypt every year. It was this incident that precipitated the confrontation in parliament with the military government and presages political turmoil.
The Brotherhood seems to be in tune with the people on these issues, and has apparently decided to press its advantage. The lifting of the travel ban especially seems to have outraged the citizens of Egypt due to interference in the judicial process by the military, as the original judge in the case has alleged. This initiated an intense questioning of ministers in parliament, as lawmaker after lawmaker called for a vote of no confidence. “I wish members of the U.S. Congress could listen to you now to realize that this is the parliament of the revolution, which does not allow a breach of the nation’s sovereignty or interference in its affairs,” said the parliament's speaker, FJP member Saad el-Katatni.
The military says only it has the authority to dismiss the government. To make that point, ministers who were scheduled to answer questions from lawmakers on the NGO issue failed to show up for the afternoon session of parliament. "It seems that the government is pushing for a crisis with parliament," el-Katatni said.
The no confidence vote is a process that should take about two weeks, as each minister in turn needs to be questioned by lawmakers. But it is unclear that, even if the parliament is successful, there will be any changes to the government. The military has sole authority to name the prime minister and his cabinet, which means that even if they are voted out, the military could appoint the same people.
One observer of Egyptian politics, Mazen Hassan, a political science professor at Cairo University, said, "It has the perfect bits and pieces by which [parliament] can gain popularity." Indeed, the parliament voted two other measures that promised to be very popular among the nationalist-minded Egyptian populace.
Both measures are largely symbolic, but represent an ominous sign of things to come. First, the parliament, by a show of hands, accepted a report by the Arab Committee that called for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the recall of the Egyptian ambassador from Israel, and a halt to the sales of natural gas to the Jewish state. The Islamists also introduced a measure that would cut the $1.3 billion in aid from the US to Egypt. Both issues are a challenge to the military government, which has reserved the power to make such decisions. But the popular sentiment expressed in both resolutions will strengthen the hand of the Brotherhood going into the presidential elections. It may also get the military to compromise on the make-up of the government, putting some Islamist ministers in power if the no confidence vote is successful.
The report from the Arab Committee is an interesting document for those who still believe that the Muslim Brotherhood can be trusted. One of those trusting souls is Jimmy Carter who responded to a question from a talk show host asking if he saw Egypt "moving away" from the peace treaty with Israel. Said Carter:
They assured me personally and they have made public statements accordingly that they will honor the peace treaty that I helped negotiate in 1979. They know its very important to Egypt to maintain peace with Israel and I don’t have any doubt that they will carry out their promise to me.
On Monday, Egypt's parliament asked the military to "review all relations and agreements" with Israel, which it described as Egypt and the Arab world's "number one enemy."
“Revolutionary Egypt will never be a friend, partner or ally of the Zionist entity (Israel), which we consider to be the number one enemy of Egypt and the Arab nation,” said the report. That seems clear enough for anyone -- even someone as oblivious as the former president. The report also endorsed the Palestinian resistance “in all its kinds and forms” against Israel’s “aggressive policies.” Presumably, this means supporting the blowing up of civilians in terrorist attacks and launching rocket barrages into towns and cities.
While the acceptance of the committee report will not immediately affect relations with the Jewish state, Israel has to be alarmed at the rank hatred expressed in such a document and the determination of the Islamists to sever ties -- even though it would risk war.
As with the vote on Israel, the measure introduced to refuse US aid is not really in the purview of parliament to consider -- at this point in time. Once a president is elected, parliament will write a new constitution where it is expected that the power of the president (and the military council that backs him) will be reduced and the power of the legislature increased. The Brotherhood may very well take such decisions about Israel and the US out of the hands of the president and write them into parliament's powers. Obviously, regional stability will ride on the outcome of that tug-of-war. But the military is not expected to cede power easily, and there may be other issues the Islamists feel would be worth fighting for that might take precedence over a foreign policy portfolio for parliament. But when it comes to the Brotherhood's hatred of Israel, any outcome is possible.
These moves by the Islamists in parliament are the opening gambit in what promises to be a tense jockeying for power and influence in the Egyptian government over the next several months. Even the presidential elections won't settle the power sharing arrangement between civilians and the military. Much will depend on how the military sees the future of Egypt and whether it would be amendable to giving up some of its influence in order to achieve a peaceful, stable society.
No one is betting on that outcome. Nor is anyone wagering that the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate its views toward Israel or the US.
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