Surprise: New Egyptian dictator declares martial law ahead of constitutional referendum

Remember when the Egyptian army was supposed to be a check on the Brotherhood’s power, not an arm of it?

As his proposed compromise faded and tensions mounted on Sunday, Mr. Morsi followed through on plans announced the day before to authorize the military to protect national institutions and polling places. His order, printed in the official gazette on Sunday, amounts to a form of martial law, because it will allow soldiers under the direction of the defense minister to arrest civilians under a military code of justice.

The move indicated that, at least in the short term, Egypt’s powerful military was lining up behind the new Islamist president to complete the transition to a new constitution.

The new draft constitution is a sharia fan’s dream, giving Muslim clerics power over civil rights and establishing a legal basis for the sort of morals street-policing for which Saudi Arabia’s mutaween are known and loathed. Why would the military leadership, which partnered with the west for decades under Mubarak and takes billions from the U.S. even now, go for something like that? Two reasons. One: There are more Islamists in the military’s hierarchy than analysts thought. That’s how Morsi got away with firing Field Marshal Tantawi, the leader of the country’s junta and de facto supreme ruler until he was canned. Two: The military as an institution has reached an accommodation with the Brotherhood, an outcome so completely predictable that even a dummy like me saw it coming on the very day that Mubarak was deposed. Quote:

The trick for the Brotherhood will be emulating the Iranian model to coopt the military somehow. They’ll have to do it in reverse order from how Iran did it — i.e., instead of starting a la Iran with an Islamist revolt that’s later secured by a de facto military coup (in 2009), they’ll have to follow today’s de facto coup with an Islamist revolt — but it’s not impossible. If the Egyptian military holds on too tightly to power and the public gets restless again, they could strike a deal with the Brotherhood in which the Islamists take formal control in the name of “democratic legitimacy” in return for guaranteeing that the military can keep its business rackets going.

Quid pro quo. If the Brotherhood leaves the military alone, the military will repay the kindness. And sure enough, here’s what the new sharia-on-steroids draft constitution says about military prerogatives:

According to analysts who have studied it, the centerpiece of the charter is the creation of a 15-member national defense council — including eight military appointees — that is essentially an autonomous overseer of military affairs.

Critically, the council has the power to approve declarations of war, a provision that analysts cast as a kind of safety valve for the United States, which remains wary of an Islamist government with ties to the Palestinian militant group Hamas that might jeopardize the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel.

The council would handle military trials, which also are allowed for Egyptian civilians who are deemed a threat to the military. Although parliament must approve the overall budget figure, the council would handle all of its details, which are not required to be made public.

And in a provision that challenges any pretense of civilian oversight of the military, the draft charter requires that the president appoint the defense minister from among the ranks of the military.

The military’s defense budget will also be the province of the national defense council, not parliament, which means the men with guns will continue to operate as a “state within a state.” But even that’s good news for the Brotherhood, at least for now: A constitution that placed the military directly under Morsi’s command might spook Egypt’s western benefactors, who worry about a new war with Israel. By giving the military some sort of ostensible veto power over war, the MB is signaling to the U.S. that it’s safe to keep the money and weapons coming. That’s one of the reasons why the White House has been so embarrassingly docile about Morsi’s power grab. Not only are they trying to build goodwill among Egyptians by showing respect for “democracy,” even if the referendum results in a freakishly illiberal, undemocratic new constitution, but in theory they’ve got a failsafe via Egypt’s semi-independent military in case the MB decides to get frisky with Tel Aviv. In fact, almost as if to flaunt America’s acquiescence in all this, Morsi’s spokesman reiterated today that he’s planning to visit the U.S. in 2013.

The obvious next step for the Brotherhood once this new accommodation is in place is to further consolidate power by having its Islamist allies inside the military start purging the more secular officers. They’re not going to let the army operate autonomously forever; the risk of a new military coup is too high, especially when the order inevitably comes for a new war with Israel. In fact, I wonder if they’ll engage in some lesser adventurism first in order to win the military’s loyalty as part of the consolidation process. Making a move on Libya would destroy relations with the U.S., but if/when the MB amasses enough power to contemplate another bout with the IDF, they’ll have already committed to those relations being destroyed. Anyway, can’t wait for the joint Obama/Morsi presser next year!