Lost in Transition: The World According to Egypt’s SCAF
Middle East/North Africa Report N°12124 Apr 2012
Since it assumed power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been, at times, head-scratching. Extolled in the wake of the uprising as the revolution’s protector, many have come to view it as an agent of the counter-revolution. It often has been obstinate, before abruptly yielding to pressure. It values its long ties with Washington, from which it receives much assistance, but seemed willing to jeopardise them by targeting U.S.-funded NGOs. Suspected by Islamists of seeking to deprive them of opportunity to govern and by non-Islamists of entering a secret pact with the Muslim Brotherhood, it finds itself in the worst of both worlds: an angry tug-of-war with liberal protesters and a high-wire contest with Islamists. It displays little interest in governing, wishing instead to protect privileges, but erratic behaviour threatens even that. On the eve of presidential elections that have become a high-stakes free-for-all, the SCAF should take a step back and, with the full range of political actors, agree on principles for a genuine and safe political transition.
What has the SCAF been thinking? Understanding the Egyptian military’s mindset is difficult and requires modesty in reaching conclusions. At the core of the SCAF’s outlook is the conviction that its principal complaints against the Mubarak regime – the slide toward hereditary government; the excesses of neoliberal policies; ostentatious corruption by networks associated with the president’s family – faithfully reflected the public’s. Once it had ousted the president, it follows, it felt it had accomplished the revolution’s goals. As a corollary, the SCAF was and is inclined to view any who continued to protest after Mubarak’s fall as serving either their own narrow self-interests or, worse, those of foreign powers (read: the U.S.) aiming to weaken and fragment a proud Arab nation. No doubt, the latter notion has been a tool used by the SCAF to discredit its critics; but it would be a mistake to see it as that alone, for it is also a deeply-held belief within the military.
As a corollary to the corollary, the SCAF considers itself the sole actor possessing the experience, maturity and wisdom necessary to protect the country from domestic and external threats. In contrast, virtually all political parties are regarded with scorn, self-centred in their demands, narrow-minded in their behaviour. The Muslim Brotherhood stands as an exception of sorts, treated by the military with guarded respect. But it is a respect born of the long-term, hard-fought battle waged against an outlawed organisation that faced decades of persecution. Because the Brotherhood represents the only organised political force with which it must contend, the SCAF has treated it seriously – which does not mean sympathetically.
The interests the SCAF wishes to defend are a mix of the national and more parochial, but insofar as the military is persuaded it alone can protect Egypt, it has a tendency to conflate its well-being with that of the country. With the spread of internal insecurity, volatility in the Sinai and uncertainty in Libya and Sudan, it hardly sees this as a time to trust untested civilians. But it also hardly sees this as a time for others to challenge its privileged status – such as a secret budget sheltered from civilian oversight; de facto immunity from prosecution; and vast business ventures that affect key sectors of the economy. It almost certainly has no wish to remain in the political spotlight, governing the nation and thus blamed for what inevitably will be a taxing period of social and economic distress. But nor does it intend to be sidelined, lose its self-ascribed role as guarantor of constitutional legitimacy, be stripped of its economic privileges or see political institutions in the hands of a single (Islamist) party. Its objective is to stay in the background yet remain an arbitrator; and shun the limelight even as it retains decisive influence.
The trouble is that virtually all the SCAF has been doing and that has occurred since it took power has placed that objective further out of reach. Playing secularists against Islamists and Islamists against secularists alienated both. After a period of at least implicit understanding, the two leading forces – the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood – appear locked in a zero-sum game. The degree of uncertainty is striking. Egyptians elected a parliament and are scheduled to choose a president without enjoying either well-defined or commonly accepted powers. The committee due to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, which already had lost much of its credibility, has been suspended by court order. The issue of civil-military relations, at the centre of controversy both before and after the uprising, remains open. Of greatest concern, perhaps, is the risk the transitional process, despite having checked all the boxes (parliamentary and presidential elections and a new constitution), will end up doing so in ways that undermine the new institutions’ legitimacy, yield an unstable political system and fail to resolve any of Egypt’s many questions.
From the SCAF’s perspective, this cannot be welcome news. Its goal, from the outset, was to preserve what it could from the previous system for the sake of continuity, restore normalcy, marginalise a protest movement it viewed with considerable suspicion as well as both work with and contain the Islamists. Not only are the odds for success declining by the day; in the process, it also increasingly is alienating a range of political forces while diminishing its leverage and capacity to pursue its goals.
Given growing political polarisation, the presidential election has become pivotal. Fearing that the military would impose a strong presidential system, void parliament of real influence and thus rob it of its historical opportunity to govern, the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its weight into this race, reneging on its repeated pledge not to do so. Remnants of the old regime sought to respond in kind. The presidential electoral commission has thrown out some of the highest-profile candidates – from the former regime; from the Brotherhood; and from the Salafi movement – but that has done little to mollify passions, as both Islamists and non-Islamists, suspecting a regime attempt to shape the electoral outcome, are renewing their protests.
The election may well be the SCAF’s last chance to peacefully produce a “balanced” political system, reflecting the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary supremacy, yet also protecting interests critical to the military. Should Egyptians elect an Islamist without a prior understanding between the political forces and the military, the SCAF could well find itself at once powerful and helpless, unable to influence the process save by unconstitutional – and highly risky – moves. The prospect of renewed, widespread confrontation and an abrupt halt to the transitional process, once remote, no longer is unthinkable. The end result could be a presidential election that further inflames the situation, gives rise to institutional and extra-institutional challenges, jeopardises the transition and settles nothing.
Neither the SCAF nor the Muslim Brotherhood wanted it to come to this. For the two, the clash is premature. Both would have benefited from a compromise agreement, safeguarding essential military prerogatives while setting the country on a clear path toward full civilian rule, allowing the Islamists to govern but ensuring it happens gradually and inclusively, consistent with the Brotherhood’s own fear of grabbing too much too soon. But, because the transition increasingly has taken on a winner-take-all quality, neither appears to feel it has a choice.
It is not too late. What is urgently needed is what the SCAF was either unwilling or unable to do from the outset: consult broadly and seriously with representatives from the entire political class and reach agreement on key parameters of a future political system – the powers of the presidency, the constitutional committee’s make-up and the basis of civil-military relations. By clarifying what precisely is at stake in the presidential elections, defining checks and balances and ensuring that fundamental guarantees can protect various interests at play, such a deal would de-dramatise the contest. It would make it less of an uncontrollable existential exercise – and more of a manageable political one.