CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s generals have set political rules that could keep the army in power for years, one of their senior Islamist opponents warned on Wednesday, but the Muslim Brotherhood will not fight back in the way that plunged Algeria into bloody civil war.
Saad al-Katatni, speaker of the short-lived democratic parliament dissolved by the ruling military council last week, told Reuters that the opponents of army rule in Egypt had no weapons and only “legal and popular” means at their disposal.
“What happened in Algeria cannot be repeated in Egypt,” said Katatni, rejecting comparisons with the conflict that erupted 20 years ago when a military-backed government blocked another Islamist group’s ascent to power through the ballot box. Some 150,000 or more Algerians were killed during the 1990s.
“The Egyptian people are different and not armed,” Katatni, a 61-year-old microbiologist, said in his first interview since the Islamist-dominated legislature was dissolved after a court ruled procedures in its election were unconstitutional.
“We are fighting a legal struggle via the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets,” he said. “This is the ceiling. I see the continuation of the struggle in this way.”
He demanded the army recognize democracy but also offered conciliatory words: “Everyone must submit to popular will,” said Katatni, who was elected by fellow lawmakers in January to preside over Egypt’s first freely elected parliament in decades.
The army deserved thanks for removing Mubarak and preventing wider bloodshed, he said in an interview at a party office - like other members, he is barred from the parliament building.
The latest twists in Egypt’s messy transition from Hosni Mubarak’s rule has plunged the country into a new bout of political instability just as Egyptians had hoped the election of a new president would mark the start of a new era.
Instead, the generals and the Brotherhood appear at opposite ends of a power struggle defined in ever more dramatic terms. Yet the prospect of violence seems, for now, a remote one.
Veteran Islamists have long held that Egypt’s own brush with militancy in the 1980s and 1990s - violence led by hardline, armed Salafi groups, not the Brotherhood - has undermined the idea that much can be achieved in Egypt through violence.
It was decades ago that the Brotherhood eschewed violence in pursuit of its goals, though offshoots of a movement founded in Egypt in 1928 still deploy violence - notably Palestinian Hamas against Israel - while the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is part of an opposition there that has taken up arms in the past year.
Egypt’s parliament was declared unconstitutional on Thursday by a court ruling that was swiftly followed by the military council decree ordering its dissolution - the first of a series of measures that have redrawn Egypt’s transition from army rule, undermined the Brotherhood and entrenched the generals’ power.
The decree issued on Sunday restored legislative power to the military, set new rules for the writing of a new constitution and curbed the powers of the presidency, which the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsy claims to have won. Results have yet to be announced amid mutual accusations of vote-rigging.
“It indicates the desire of the military council to continue in power and not to hand it over. In an indirect way, they will not hand over on June 30, and are continuing, and it’s open-ended this time,” Katatni said, referring to the date the generals had set for handing control to nominal civilian rule.
There was absolutely no doubt, said Katatni, that the Brotherhood’s Morsy had won the presidential election held on Saturday and Sunday by defeating ex-air force commander Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister.
He dismissed Shafik’s claims of victory, arguing that it was mathematically impossible that he could have won on the basis of official logs of the vote count, copies of which his office presented to Reuters in a hefty, bound volume.
“The Supreme Election Committee’s papers are the same as ours,” said Katatni, dressed in a suit and tie as he spoke at the headquarters of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in central Cairo. He dismissed questions about the consequences of a Shafik victory as “a hypothesis that does not exist”.
Were Morsy to become head of state, a prospect army sources have said is likely, the new curbs on the presidential powers raise questions over whether the position may be more of a curse than a blessing to the Brotherhood, making the group answerable for Egypt’s problems but without the power to resolve them.
The new decree also complicates the drafting of a new constitution, a process which is supposed to be seen through by a body of politicians, lawyers and other society figures picked by parliament and which sat for the first time this week.
The new decree gives a range of top public figures, including the head of the military council, the right to veto articles of the constitution - something Katatni said could lead to protracted legal battles in the constitutional court.
This could “lead us into a vacuum and the constitution could take years, giving a justification to the military council to stay in power for years”, he said. “This is unacceptable.”
A Brotherhood veteran, Katatni served as an member of parliament from 2005 to 2010, winning his seat against the odds in elections that were rigged to favor Mubarak’s ruling party. Born in Sohag in southern Egypt, he joined the group in 1979.
Interpreting the reason behind the generals’ latest moves, Katatni said their concern appeared to be ensuring the new constitution was completed by the time they step aside, thereby guaranteeing the interests of a military at the heart of power in Egypt since army officers overthrew the king in 1952.
Katatni offered a conciliatory reading of their actions, saying the generals, worried about the prospect of change, wanted to make sure the military establishment would not be badly damaged in a state run by civilians.
He said the military council did not have the right to dissolve parliament the way it had, even though he said the Brotherhood respected the court ruling that had declared the election laws unconstitutional, and with them the vote itself.
The speed with which the military council had dissolved the chamber hinted at its political motives, he added.
“It’s un-Egyptian,” he joked, comparing the speed of the move with the usual pace of the local bureaucracy. “The ruling contains plenty of politics and little law,” he said.
He also faulted the military order for failing to set a date for a new parliamentary election, leaving the country with neither a parliament nor the prospect of having one soon.
Despite the problems Egypt now faces, Katatni said he was optimistic about the future. He repeated statements of gratitude often heard from Brotherhood leaders for the role played by the military since it removed Mubarak from power on February 11, 2011.
“We don’t want them to bear more than they are capable of: to carry the responsibility for executive and legislative powers. They played a very great role in protecting the revolution and managing the interim period,” Katatni said.
But he added: “We say: go back to your barracks, to your primary mission. There are elected institutions that will run the state.”
Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alastair Macdonald