x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Everything uncertain in Egypt after generals rewrite the rules

Don't bother asking who runs Egypt now. Through all the political tumult, the generals have not really relaxed their grip on control at all.

We might not know for sure who is Egypt's president until tomorrow, when the election commission overseeing the recent vote will issue the definitive results. But the question is whether that really matters much anymore. Egyptian politics have been upturned over the last four days, and everything one could assume about the country's transition to civilian rule has vanished into smoke.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) will not hand over power to civilians on June 30, as it had promised Egyptians multiple times and assured the international community. Instead it will hand over only symbolic control to an elected president whose powers have been largely gutted, while the military will continue as a constitutional power in its own right - alongside the executive, legislative and judiciary - and also hold the powers of the dissolved parliament.

The new president may have some power, but he will have to look hard for it in the interim constitution that Scaf just modified: it does not mention many presidential powers, and who gets to appoint a new cabinet is likely to be at best a responsibility shared with the generals. The new president certainly will not be able to appoint the defence minister and other senior military personnel. Perhaps the most telling move is that Scaf is appointing the chief of staff for the incoming president. In a normal republic, that would be one of the most powerful jobs in the country held by a close associate of the chief executive.

How long will the new president be around anyway? Perhaps no longer than the end of the year, according to some observers close to Scaf.

Although the constitution states presidential terms last four years, it is now probable that the adoption of a new constitution at the end of the year will mean new general elections. Combined with the dissolution of parliament, it is almost as if Scaf was buying time for political forces other than the Brotherhood (and, perhaps, their allies) to prepare for elections.

Speaking of that new constitution: neither a democratically elected parliament nor a democratically elected president will get to choose who sits on the constitutional assembly that will write it. Those people will be chosen, of course, by Scaf. There will be a national referendum on the new constitution, to be sure, and it may very well be acceptable to most parties, at least on hot-button issues such as respect for religion and individual freedoms. But it is also very likely to perpetuate Scaf's role indefinitely as a power that can trump other branches of government. Whether, come the referendum, the Egyptian people will be in a mood to reject the new constitution they have been awaiting since February 11, 2011 is anyone's guess.

On that date, when the Egyptian military shoved Hosni Mubarak gently aside and took formal control of the country, many were ready to give it the benefit of the doubt. For the outside world, Scaf was the only interlocutor representing the state anyway, and a guarantor that revolutionary fervour would not turn into ill-advised adventurism. It also promised the potential for reform within a certain status quo for those powers that fear radical change of foreign policy in the new Egypt - Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others. Inside the country, many revolutionaries and ordinary Egyptians trusted a military that had still not fired upon them. Political factions rushed to embrace the new powers-that-be, more worried about one another than the benevolent custodians the generals appeared to be, with their much-touted disdain for the limelight.

Almost everyone, in other words, accepted a military coup that cleanly delivered them from a decrepit dictator's rule and offered the prospect for a managed transition into a new era. There was domestic and international buy-in for this, which gave both the generals and political factions the time to come to an agreement on how to proceed.

Few countries get this opportunity for a managed transition, and in many respects it was wise to go along with it when the alternative seemed like prolonged chaos. An unmanaged transition, as we see today in Libya, can be an extremely messy thing that takes years to bring under control.

In Egypt, the state did not collapse and that should still be considered a very, very good thing.

The saddest thing about the current Egyptian mess is that the opportunity to achieve a relatively smooth transition is being missed. This is chiefly because of the actions of the custodians of that managed transition. They wrote a terrible rulebook, then wanted to change it all the while continuously undermining the very purpose of the game. Considering that Egypt's uprising in 2011 was a remarkably non-violent one, despite the hundreds who died and the clashes that took place between security forces and protesters, this brinkmanship risks shaming that narrative.

Some defenders of Scaf's recent actions say that things are not so bad, that this offers the opportunity for a clean "reboot" of a transition that was deadlocked by Egypt's Islamist-secular divide. Now the army will impose its own constitution, and by 2013 new elections will give a new parliament and perhaps also a new president. Be patient, these argue, and the military will fade into the background where it prefers to be.

But the definition of a new political order after 30-years of strongman rule is not like the relaunch of the Star Trek or Batman film franchises. This "reboot", more than anything, further erodes trust in public institutions and amounts to an ultimatum backed by the threat of violence against political forces - in particular, against the Muslim Brotherhood, which is facing court cases that could lead to its dissolution. This post-election situation adds uncertainty and the potential for new crises when it should have been a milestone towards the restoration of a proper constitutional order. The global markets were the first to give their reaction by downgrading Egypt's debt rating, and the Egyptian street may soon follow.


Issandr El Amrani is an independent Cairo-based journalist who blogs at www.arabist.net

On Twitter: @arabist