Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg

From the moment the Egyptian regime was toppled in February 2011, the nation’s military and its Islamic democrats were set on a collision course. Now we’re seeing the crash.

Aided by a Constitutional Court ruling rolling back parliamentary elections, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has dissolved parliament and appointed 100 “experts” to write a new constitution. For good measure, the military stripped the powerful Egyptian presidency of existing powers -- just in time, because the next day it became clear that Mohamed Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, had won the presidency. Parliament plans to convene next week with its own constitutional committee. Egypt is far beyond constitutional crisis: It is teetering on the edge of collapse.

For those who greeted last year’s Arab Spring with excitement and optimism, it may be surprising that the central conflict in Egyptian politics is between the military and the Islamists. After all, it was a cross-section of Egyptian society, galvanized and to some degree led by young secularists, that brought the country to a standstill and a long-serving dictator to his knees. In demanding freedom, Egypt seemed to have reclaimed its historic position at the vanguard of the Arab world.

Complicated Revolt

But experienced observers knew that the Egyptian situation was far more complicated than it seemed from watching the grave and joyful protesters in Tahrir Square. For one thing, the protesters didn’t actually bring down Hosni Mubarak, the former dictator who suffered stroke on Tuesday. By refusing to leave the square even under intense and violent pressure from the police, they weakened the president drastically. It was the army that delivered the coup de grace.

The night before Mubarak was forced from office, he was still insisting that he could stick it out. Alone, the protesters probably could not have forced him to resign. By declaring Mubarak’s presidency over, the military asserted that it was ultimately in charge. This decision to jettison Mubarak did not stem from ideals, but rather from the fact that Mubarak was aging and there was no easy transition in sight. The military council was gambling that it could ride out the wave of public unrest more effectively without the figurehead of traditional autocracy.

As for the Islamists, they rallied to the cause of the Arab Spring only very late in the game -- after it became clear that their absence would permanently damage their credibility with the public. The Muslim Brotherhood knew perfectly well that most of the people in Tahrir Square were not its constituents. Nearly a century of resistance to Egypt’s succession of corrupt monarchs and autocrats had taught the Brothers that quiescence, not revolt, was the way to stay alive.

Yet the Brotherhood came up with a brilliant strategy for the medium term: to gain power through democratic action. A protest movement, no matter how broad-based, is not the same as a formal election. Demonstrations involve speaking up, spontaneous action and bravery. Politics requires deep organization, legwork and stolid respectability.

The Brotherhood believed, correctly, that regime change would lead to an election. And they knew they could shine. Since the Algerian elections of 1990, Islamic democrats had won the majority of the seats they contested in every even modestly free election in the Arabic-speaking world.

The Brothers were lucky. The peaceful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square were instinctual democrats. Whether out of sincerity, naivete or a combination, they demanded elections that were sure to deny them power. The military went along. The Brotherhood won the biggest share in the parliament -- and now it has won the presidency, too.

Popular Will

So the army represents the traditional power structure in Egypt, and the Brotherhood represents the will of the people as it would be defined in an ordinary democracy. Their clash is the real thing: a head-to-head confrontation between autocratic force and popular majoritarianism. Its resolution will determine, to a great extent, the future of democracy in the entire Arab world. It will determine once and for all whether the Arab Spring was real.

The struggle could be peacefully resolved in several ways - - none very likely. The Brotherhood could fold, accepting the position of token power under the thumb of the military, as its Moroccan wing has done under King Muhammad VI. This would mean sacrificing credibility as well as ideology. If the Brotherhood were to accept such a wholly a subordinate position, it would squander its historic opportunity to marry religious legitimacy with constitutional democracy -- its goal for the past two decades.

Alternatively, in a perfect Brotherhood world, the public would return to the streets in opposition to the army and the Supreme Council could back down, accepting the Brotherhood’s electoral victory in exchange for a promise to allow the military to keep its $1 billion-plus in annual U.S. aid. The difficulty is that a substantial minority -- 48 percent -- of Egyptians voted for the military’s preferred presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik.

Given the extent of its public support, there is little reason for the army to go gently. Nor will it be content to control a U.S.-bankrolled military fiefdom -- the generals know that over time, the Brotherhood will try to change the army by urging the promotion of younger, Islamist officers.

There is one model for compromise between the Brotherhood and the military, in which genuine power-sharing subsists over time: Turkey since the Justice and Development Party took power in 2002. The Turkish military has gradually lost its controlling place in government, a fact the Supreme Council will not ignore. But Turkey is comparatively rich, stable and happy -- and that, too, is relevant.

Egyptians would also do well to recall the example of Algeria. After the first contemporary Arab democratic experiment took place there two decades ago, the military reacted to Islamist victory by reversing the electoral results and declaring martial law. The war that followed lasted for years. More than 100,000 people were killed in vicious guerilla fighting. Unless the Muslim Brotherhood and the military can find common ground soon, Egypt will be on a similar path.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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Today’s highlights: the editors on Egypt’s de facto coup d’etat and on a capital gains-corporate income tax deal; Margaret Carlson on Washington’s other dysfunctional government; Clive Crook on why the European Central Bank must act; Peter Orszag on mandatory voting in the U.S.; Carl Pope on the rise of renewable energy in emerging markets.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at noah_feldman@harvard.edu.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.