Egypt’s military junta oversaw the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi’s assumption of the presidency over the weekend. Some in the press have reported this as a transfer of power from the military to the new, freely elected president. That is wrong: Egypt does not have a new constitution yet, and it is not clear exactly what the presidency will be.
It could be a very powerful post if the Islamic supremacists (the Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called Salafists) who overwhelmingly won the parliamentary elections get to write the constitution. But the junta, under cover of a court opinion, disbanded parliament before the presidential election and indicated that the generals would form a constitution-writing committee. If a committee selected by the junta ends up writing the constitution, the presidency could be an essentially ceremonial office. It is, however, hard to imagine that the Islamic supremacists will quietly abide an arrangement in which both their seeming acquisition of legislative authority is voided by the military and the presidency they also won is made toothless. Expect lots more trouble, of the violent kind.
From the perspective of true democratic reform (as opposed to the hollow shell of democratic procedures, a popular election by which a largely Sunni supremacist population ushers enemies of real democratic culture into power), the frightful thing is that the Obama administration and the West have chosen the wrong side: they are pressuring the moderately pro-Western military to hand over power to the Brotherhood, which despises the West.
While that struggle ensues, the very alarming development over the weekend is that the Brotherhood and the Salafists, who are determined to exercise the parliamentary power they accurately say they won fair and square, have thrown down the gauntlet on sharia — Islam’s totalitarian legal framework for society. The Egypt Independent reports that the collaborating Islamic supremacist factions have agreed that sharia itself — not just guidelines gleaned from sharia principles — will be the primary law of Egypt. If that happens, Egypt will far more resemble Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the fundamentalist-controlled Aceh province of Indonesia than what we prefer to imagine as “moderate” Islamic countries.