From the Mediterranean coast to the desert plateau, Egypt is awash with rumors that have whipped the populace into a state of acute anxiety. Word has spread that a renewed state of emergency is imminent or that the Muslim Brothers plan to deploy a militia to the streets, that families should stock up on fuel or food because of “dark days ahead,” that a curfew will be imposed, that Hosni Mubarak’s death will delay a new president taking office or that last weekend’s election will have to be run again because of massive fraud.
The state of panic points to two sad trends: The military is consolidating power with increasing directness and public support, while the entire civilian political sphere has fractured to a degree that beggars the prospect of effective cooperation. Forget about unity in the face of a crusty military junta flush with victory. The moment for revolutionary system-change might well have passed for now. Instead, we can expect a period of retrenchment, nasty political infighting and polarization, all of which will benefit the authoritarians in charge.
No matter who is designated the winner this weekend (or in the eventuality that authorities indefinitely postpone a ruling on the disputed presidential race), the real victor will be the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate decisively won the presidential race by its own count, has promised not to resort to force if the unaccountable electoral authority awards the election to the ex-regime’s candidate, who has promised a “surprise.”
Either way, the next president will take office in the shadow of the ruling SCAF, which has boldly written itself into a position of dominance with a series of arbitrary court decisions and a temporary constitution that extends the military’s control almost indefinitely.
Primary responsibility for all of this mess rests with the military, which introduced a process designed to enervate the public through confusion, uncertainty and a long, constantly shifting timetable. Since Mubarak stepped down, the military has been in complete control. Lest people forget, it is the military that massacred peaceful protesters at Maspero in October 2011, and the military that is responsible for a state media that has peddled noxious sectarian propaganda against the Brotherhood and a xenophobic smear campaign to undermine the revolutionary youth.
No matter the sins of the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberals since they were sworn in as members of parliament in January, it's important to remember that only the military had the power to drive a political transition, perk up the flailing economy or provide respectable security on the streets. SCAF has failed on all counts.
Nonetheless, the Muslim Brotherhood behaved with reprehensible brittleness and triumphalism. In parliament, it coddled up to the military dictators, refraining from passing legislation to challenge SCAF powers and engaged in majoritarian overreach with its determination to ram through a constitutional convention dominated by Islamists, rather than one built on principles of consensus and universal representation.
And many liberals have chosen to see these freely elected Islamists as a greater threat than the military dictatorship that kills and beats demonstrators, imprisons activists, tries civilians before military courts and insists by fiat or rigged judicial ruling on undoing every single political development that curtails military power.
As Egyptians awaited the decision of the capricious Presidential Election Commission, already delayed to much alarm from Thursday to the weekend, I watched a liberal grandee hector a pair of young revolutionaries. Mohamed Ghonim is a widely respected urologist and polyglot who founded a renowned clinic in the provincial Nile Delta city of Mansoura. Late in the evening at the Books & Beans café bookstore, seated between a baby grand piano and the window, Ghonim wagged his finger at the young men roughly a quarter his age who have spent the last year toppling a dictator, protesting in the streets, and campaigning for the pro-revolution presidential candidates who together took a majority of the vote in the first round but were too fractured to make into the runoff.
“These guys have to learn history and focus on one issue, the constitution, without messing around,” Ghonim said. Ahmed Shafiq, a retired air force general who served as Mubarak’s final prime minister, has promised a restoration of a “state of law” if elected, and is tightly aligned with the worst elements of the old regime’s abuse of power.
Yet Ghonim — like many liberals — appeared unconcerned about a Shafiq victory, stolen or legitimate. He cited Marxist-Leninist theory: The nastier the regime, the greater the clarity and therefore the better for the “second wave of the revolution.” This sort of blithe insouciance about another round of dictatorial revanchism runs deep among liberals, and will serve to further divide and discredit them among both revolutionaries and Islamists.
The SCAF might be comfortable with a Muslim Brotherhood presidency. Their powers are well assured, and they’ll benefit from an Islamist scapegoat in the president’s chair whom they can blame for the coming failures of governance. But the old ruling party apparatus and the police have much more to fear. Under Muslim Brotherhood rule, stalwarts of the National Democratic Party could see their assets confiscated and their local patronage and control machines dismantled. Abusive and once-all-powerful police officials might face prison and certainly can expect to see themselves marginalized or fired from the Ministry of the Interior. For them, this election is an existential contest. Shafiq would save them; Mursi might smite them. Among their ranks they count many of the richest business owners in Egypt, along with the top judges on the Supreme Constitutional Court, who incidentally (and without possibility of appeal!) control the electoral process.
One final matter merits further thought. The entire political class has obsessed about the constitution. What position will it give Islam? Will it stipulate a presidential, parliamentary or hybrid system? The primacy accorded the constitution is puzzling. Of course, the institutions and principles stipulated in the state’s constitution are important, but they are far less determinative than power. Hosni Mubarak eviscerated the rule of law in Egypt despite a decent-enough constitution and theoretical legal framework. The state’s power and intent trump rules. Over the past year and a half, the SCAF has used constitutional declarations, supra-constitutional declarations, the state of emergency and electoral procedures to tie the country in knots. In Egypt today, the law is a joke, issued by generals whose legitimacy is conjured by an unsubstantiated claim of authority, along with the guns that back it up. The courts make a mockery of the law, giving credence to obscene, fabricated complaints against activists filed by ex-regime hacks, dismissing candidates and elected officials on technicalities, exonerating police who kill civilians and contemplating a case to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood on another technicality.
In fact, the only groups that appear serious about respecting rules and laws are those who have been emasculated by their misuse: the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal opposition.
The political class appears determined to bring a bunch of lawyers to a gunfight with the SCAF.
Sadly, the moment of revolution has receded and the prospect of serious reform, while still possible, seems at a minimum years away. The malignant malfeasance of Egypt’s security state will continue unabated until it is forced to concede power. Only once the military’s power is stripped and it is sidelined from a transition should elected representatives concentrate their efforts on a new legal blueprint for the state.
Citizens can begin this process by refusing the legitimacy of any decision that comes from the SCAF. The dissolved parliament could meet in Tahrir Square under open air and issue its own constitution and laws. The fairly elected president could convene his cabinet in a café. Revolutionaries could hold sit-ins in government buildings, or better still, on the sidewalks in poor neighborhoods where they could explain their agenda to the wider public.
All this, however, would require a unity of purpose that has escaped a political class in thrall to the narcissism of minor differences, riven by class and sectarian prejudice, and led by craven politicians fatally tempted by the tiny slivers of power tossed to them by the SCAF. Until this mindset changes, we can expect the military to reign smugly over a rebellious but fragmented Egypt.
Thanassis Cambanis is writing a book about the efforts of Egyptian revolutionaries to build a new order after Mubarak. Follow him at thanassiscambanis.com and on Twitter @tcambanis. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.