x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Army's sleight of hand gives Egypt a show of revolution

The people who thronged Tahrir Square in February did not do so in the hope of handing power directly and permanently to the armed forces. But the ruling military council seems poised to consolidate its control

There are few things quite as dangerous for a revolution as believing its own propaganda. That lesson is being learnt through bitter experience by many of the Egyptians who congregated on Tahrir Square last February chanting: "The people and the army are one hand!"

That slogan was always more an expression of hope than a statement of fact. And news that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the junta of 25 generals that replaced President Hosni Mubarak, is considering claiming independence from and formal veto power over future democratically elected governments suggests that the belief that the citizenry and the army share the same interests may be a dangerous illusion.

Having initially promised an election in September for a parliament that would write a new constitution, the military has since pivoted towards the view of secular liberals who fear being trounced at the polls by the Muslim Brotherhood, and argued for delaying the vote and creating a new constitution first. And some of those parties of the liberal elite see the military playing the role of guaranteeing secularism against the Islamist "threat". Some of the generals clearly believe the same.

"We want a model like Turkey, but we won't force it," one general on the ruling council told The Washington Post on condition of anonymity, referring to the decades after the 1980 coup when the Turkish military set strict limits on what was permissible in civilian politics. "Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn't think democratically."

Nor, it seems, does the Egyptian military; as the generals move to lay down basic principles for a new constitution, some members of the junta argue that the military should remain free of civilian political oversight, and should have veto power over any elected civilian government. Such authority is claimed on the basis of its self-styled role as "guardians of the revolution" - the same rubric under which the security forces have detained more than 7,000 democracy activists since Mr Mubarak's ouster.

Karl Marx, always a sharper political journalist than he was an economist or philosopher, may well have nailed the nature of last February's political change in Egypt when writing of the 1852 French military coup that brought Louis Bonaparte to power. Marx described "Bonapartism" as a situation where a revolutionary movement has generated a crisis but has failed to claim power for itself, and instead allows counter-revolutionary military officers to seize control, speaking the language of the revolution even as they seek to defuse and suppress it.

The Egyptian army had, in fact, always been a hand of the regime rather than the people, since 1952 when Lt Col Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officers Movement in a coup that overthrew the monarchy. It was that same military-based regime that put first Nasser, then his fellow Free Officers Movement veteran Anwar Sadat, and finally former air force chief Hosni Mubarak in power.

As the crisis sparked by Egypt's uprising escalated last February, the military recognised that Mr Mubarak's rule had become inimical to its own institutional interests, which range from maintaining legitimacy and social stability to protecting its $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) annual US stipend and its massive profitable role in many sectors of the Egyptian economy. Mr Mubarak was sacrificed to those interests, a change in personnel but not necessarily in regime.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is no Free Officers Movement; it is led by Mr Mubarak's former defence minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and includes men the president installed in the military's top echelon. Its immediate goal has been to quell the rebellion, urging Egyptians - sometimes forcefully - to refrain from protest and even banning strikes in the name of the revolution. And while some arms of the state security system have been reorganised and renamed - and a number of former officials sacked - there has not been any kind of wholesale purge of Mr Mubarak's erstwhile enforcers. The guiding principle appears to be doing the minimum necessary to defuse popular anger, rather than rebuilding security structures to reflect the needs of a democratic society.

The generals govern like any autocrat facing mounting public anger - they constantly fire and reshuffle the cabinet, in the process only making clear how little real authority the cabinet wields. Indeed, the Supreme Council has effectively overruled cabinet ministers on issues ranging from IMF loans to Israel.

The split between the Muslim Brotherhood and the smaller liberal parties over how to orchestrate the political transition has also been skilfully manipulated by the junta. Its initial plan for early elections had some liberals accusing it of collusion with the Brotherhood; but it has since pivoted, delaying the election and accepting some of the liberal elite's arguments about hand-picked groups laying out the guidelines for the constitution - and, of course, also arguments for a greater autonomous political role for the military, to the disquiet even of many liberals.

Protests continue, of course, but their focus has largely been on retribution for Mubarak-era officials. The ritual humiliation of Mr Mubarak and his cronies is a symbolic concession the generals can afford without fundamentally altering the power equation. And simply gathering on Tahrir Square does not equal a strategy.

All is not lost by any stretch of the imagination, of course. But February is turning out to have simply been the first act of a protracted drama. And in that act, we have learnt that the military and the people are not, in fact, hand in hand. Right now it is the hand of the generals that is steering the transition. Getting to a democratic transition will require the people taking matters into their own hands.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @Tony Karon