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In Egypt, Lamentations Over a Lost Revolution

Steven A. Cook writes that at the moment of truth, the Egyptian military has made a bold move to ensure its interests no matter the results at the ballot box. This moves the historic struggle between the Brotherhood and the military into a new phase that only a new constitution that clearly delimits the powers of both the military and the presidency can resolve.
People walk in front of a wall sprayed with stencilled paintings depicting the Egyptian military council members, including Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (C), the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in Tahrir Square in Cairo May 24, 2012. Egypt resumes its first free presidential election on Thursday after voting passed off mostly calmly on the first day apart from a stone-throwing attack on candidate Ahmed Shafiq, who was premier for a few days before Hosni Mubarak fell. REUTERS/

By now, even those with just a passing interest in Egyptian politics are aware that last Thursday (June 14), the Supreme Constitutional Court nullified the election of one-third of the seats in the People’s Assembly. According to the Court, the two different methods by which independent and party-affiliated candidates were elected — “first past the post” and proportional representation, respectively — were unconstitutional because they rendered the candidates unequal. The decision threw Egypt’s political arena into turmoil, but that paled in comparison to what happened next.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces stepped in and dissolved the parliament, a power it does not have, and vested itself with legislative responsibility. Twitter feeds and Facebook immediately lit up with cries of “coup” and lamentations over a lost revolution. Still, the military was not done. By Sunday, the officers followed up with an addendum to their March 2011 Constitutional Declaration that effectively subordinates the new Egyptian president to the SCAF.

Despite endless questions about what the military’s actions mean, it should be clear that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and his commanders were doing everything they could to put Humpty Dumpty back together again while their constitutional decree was a hedge against the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi would become Egypt’s next president, which now seems likely.

Through the uncertainty and instability of the last 16 months — much of which is the result of their own doing — the officers were never able to make a deal with Egypt’s other political actors that would secure the SCAF’s interests beyond the transition. This was a critical setback for Tantawi and his men. They are the descendants of the founders of a political order that was born in the throes of the early 1950s when the Free Officers battled to consolidate their power over the objections of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Left, liberals and even other members of the armed forces. The regime that ultimately came into being was rigged in favor of the military and its civilian collaborators. The SCAF could not let this order slip away because it is the key to the officer’s economic interests and, importantly, the military’s place as the ultimate source of power and authority in the political system.

Consequently, at the moment of truth, the military has made a bold move to ensure its interests no matter the results at the ballot box. The SCAF’s machinations may be audacious, but they are also perfectly consistent with Egypt’s pathological pattern of authoritarianism. Historically, in Egypt — and Algeria, as well as Turkey until recently — autonomous militaries have been willing to tolerate varying degrees of anti-regime political activity because the officers and their civilian associates believed it added legitimacy to their regimes, gave them a way to neutralize opposition complaints about access to the political system and because (the officers believed) they could manage whatever risks this activism posed.

Yet when the opposition accumulated too much power, the military stepped in to decisively end the experiment in more open politics. Concomitant with this crackdown, the military and its allies have re-engineered the institutions — laws, rules, decrees and regulations — of the political order to prevent activists from challenging the system again. In the short run, these institutional revisions seem effective in curtailing opposition political activity, but in time these efforts actually trigger a new but familiar pattern in which activists try to change the system and the defenders of the state step in to secure their regime.

Of course the uprising and the subsequent transition do not conform precisely to the historical patterns of Egyptian politics. That is why it was “unprecedented,” “unexpected” and “extraordinary.” Still, in pushing Hosni Mubarak out of power, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was not seeking revolutionary change, but rather to forestall it. Indeed, they sought to manage the uprising and its aftermath, taking account of some of the demands from Tahrir Square, but the SCAF never actually supported the “legitimate demands of the revolution.”

The apparent election of the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi represents the most significant challenge to the officers and is thus the reason for the SCAF’s constitutional decree on Sunday. Apparently, they were not convinced that their candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, would win.

The officers had reason to worry. The military and the Brothers have long been competitors yet not because they are so different, which in ways they are, but because in more important ways they are so similar. Both officers and Brothers claim to be good nationalists, the best stewards of the economy and the appropriate group to guide the new Egypt. In each of these categories, however, the Muslim Brotherhood can legitimately claim an advantage. The Brothers have historically rejected the military’s ties to the United States (and Israel) on nationalist grounds, are economic liberals with a strong streak of social justice and have articulated a vision for the new Egypt that apparently resonates with many Egyptians. 

In issuing their decree on Sunday, the military was making sure that it would never have to salute someone the officers derisively and ironically regard as a non-nationalist while bolstering the military’s autonomy. This moves the historic struggle between the Brotherhood and the military into a new phase that only a new constitution that clearly delimits the powers of both the military and the presidency can resolve.

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