The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body that has ruled Egypt since the 2011 revolution, has taken several steps that have severely hindered Egypt’s ability to transition to democracy. Beginning with the reinstatement of martial law on June 13, 2012, continuing with the dissolution of the lower house of the Egyptian parliament (the People’s Assembly) on June 15, and culminating in a decision on June 20 to delay the results of the presidential elections, the SCAF has in one week succeeded in rolling back much of the democratic progress achieved over the last 17 months, creating hurdles for any future democratic reforms.
Perhaps the most important of SCAF’s recent decisions is its June 17 statement revamping the powers of the president and legislature. The SCAF declaration amended multiple articles in the March 2011 constitution, and reserved substantial control over defense, national security and foreign affairs to the military. According to the declaration, the SCAF will retain the power of legislation and budget approval until the election of a new parliament, will appoint its own 100-member Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution, will retain the power to try civilians in military courts, and will have full control over the military including the ability to appoint the Minister of Defense and to veto any declaration of war, removing the military and defense ministry from presidential oversight.
Additionally, the declaration announced the reinstatement of the National Defense Council, which will be headed by the new president of Egypt and consist of 15 individuals including the speakers of both houses of parliament, the foreign, finance and defense ministers, and members of the military. The Council will be responsible for matters affecting Egyptian national security, although the SCAF has not defined the Council’s exact powers. This body, which will make decisions based on majority-rule, will be dominated by the military and individuals under SCAF’s control, making the role of Council president irrelevant and handing further control of Egypt’s domestic and international affairs to the SCAF.
Of particular importance is SCAF’s method for announcing its newly expanded role. The decision was made by unilateral decree, with no opportunity for the Egyptian people or elected Egyptian institutions to weigh in. This is consistent with the SCAF’s behavior over the past year. It has shown a great degree of distrust in the democratic process, explicitly shunning popular referenda in favor of declarations and decrees. Thus, despite the progress made so far through free and fair parliamentary and presidential elections and attempts at constitutional reform, SCAF’s actions have curtailed the ability of Egypt’s elected institutions to have any real impact.
Military Coup or More of the Same?
While some observers of Egyptian politics have classified SCAF’s recent actions as a military coup or egregious power grab, the SCAF has not significantly altered its behavior. While its actions over the past few weeks may demonstrate an increased effort to ensure its hold on power, these developments should not be surprising. Throughout its tenure as Egypt’s executive leader, the SCAF has done little to assure the Egyptian people and outside observers that it has any interest in jeopardizing the military’s important and influential role in Egypt.
While the SCAF never appeared to relish the idea of governing Egypt, it is also unwilling to turn over governance to an individual or party it does not trust. Thus, the overwhelming success of Islamists (both the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis) in the parliamentary elections and the potential victory of Brotherhood candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in the presidential elections do not put the SCAF at ease. To prevent Islamist control over the parliament, presidency and constitutional council, the SCAF has used a variety of ostensibly legal maneuvers to prevent the will of the Egyptian people from taking hold. However, the game it is playing can be tricky. In order to control the political situation in Egypt and prevent civilian oversight of the military, the SCAF has frequently flip-flopped on its public positions.
The Supreme Constitutional Court’s (SCC) decision (which was implemented by the SCAF) to dissolve the newly installed parliament was allegedly based on an election law violation, committed primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). According to the election law, one-third of parliamentary seats were to be reserved for independents. The FJP allegedly ran their own candidates for those seats, including high-profile FJP members such as Speaker of Parliament Saad Katatny. However, the original decision to allow political parties to run for these seats came from the SCAF. In a publicly televised statement, the military stated it regretted the decision to dissolve parliament, putting the blame on the SCC but failing to reverse the decision.
Over the past week, as the SCAF has received domestic and international criticism for its actions, Egypt’s military rulers have made multiple public statements, some contradicting one another. While the SCAF has promised to honor the results of the presidential election, it has also stated that the “upcoming president will occupy the office for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees.” Thus, while the SCAF so far stands by its original agreement to hand over power to a civilian government by July 1, any hand over is likely to be symbolic. After all, the decision to delay the results of the presidential election is a very thinly veiled strategic move by the SCAF to prevent the eventual handover of power.
Is Transition Possible?
Given the SCAF’s actions, can Egypt still transition to democracy? In the short term, probably not. But in the long term, which is when democratic transitions actually occur, possibly yes. There are several opportunities for both the Egyptian political elite and the Egyptian populace to demand the democratic reforms they fought for in Tahrir Square.
First, the Egyptian public can use the power of protest to continue rhetorically challenging the SCAF’s actions and demand democracy. While the SCAF is unlikely to relinquish power in response, continued pressure not only draws media attention to the issues but also provides the Egyptian people with an opportunity to build off one another and share strategies for change. Strength in numbers may not bring down the SCAF, but it may force it to adjust its behavior and allow small reforms.
The SCAF is banking on the Egyptian public’s tame reaction to its declaration. While protests of increasing size have been held in Tahrir Square during the past week, they have yet to reach the size or intensity of those in January 2011. Protests on Friday, June 22, were the largest to date, but still did not reflect the united call for change seen during the revolution’s early days. Instead, the current wave of protests has been led by Islamists with the young, secular liberal revolutionaries conspicuously absent this time around.
This raises another opportunity for reform. While the dissolution of parliament and curtailment of the president’s powers are a strong blow to the Islamists, they should be seen by liberals and secularists as a chance for a “do-over.” The parliamentary elections proved that the liberals were too divided and disorganized to mount a successful challenge to the Islamists. However, in the presidential election’s first round the moderate candidates fared well, although not well enough to advance. This suggests an increasing interest among the Egyptian electorate for secular, moderate rule. The liberals should take advantage of this moment of political chaos and SCAF rule to organize and prepare to mount a serious challenge to the Islamist parties whenever the next parliamentary elections are held.
Third, although the SCAF has limited the powers of the president and delayed the announcement of elections results, there will be a new Egyptian president in the coming days or weeks. Mohammed Morsi, the Brotherhood candidate, is likely to be the winner. The new Egyptian president will have two important roles to play in Egypt’s long-term transition to democracy. First, he must play by the constitutional rules. Throughout its tenure, the SCAF has couched its actions in legal terms. By circumventing or violating the law, the president and elected parliament expose themselves to SCAF intervention. However, the president must also push for legal reforms. By both working with and standing up to the SCAF, the president should use his powers to ensure codified democratic reforms are established, while also allowing the SCAF to maintain some control over the military and defense establishments. The president must slowly introduce reforms as the SCAF will not relinquish power in one fell swoop. This gradual transition is more likely to result in true, sustainable democratic reforms.
Finally, the international community should continue to criticize the SCAF’s actions and channel its support (both rhetorical and financial) to civil society and Egyptian political parties and institutions. Funneling money to the Egyptian military now, when they are proving to be a second incarnation of Egypt’ s decades of authoritarian rule, not only provides the SCAF with the financial and rhetorical support necessary to continue its behavior, but also turns the Egyptian public against the international community. Donors should not cut off aid to Egypt, but rather should re-channel that aid to groups with a demonstrated commitment to the democratic process, including elected institutions and civil society groups.
The SCAF’s actions during the past few weeks have raised many legitimate red flags for both outside observers and the Egyptian public regarding the country’s ability to continue on the path toward democratic reform. Rather than writing off the 2011 revolution as a failure, all players in Egypt’s political system including the parliament, presidential candidates and the populace should treat and see the SCAF for what it is and has always been – a wolf in wolf’s clothing.
*Sarah E. Yerkes received her Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. She is an expert on state-society relations in Egypt.