The Middle East Channel

Blame the SCAF for Egypt’s problems

On Sunday evening, Egyptian plainclothes police and the army attacked a protest by peaceful demonstrators. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, while state television spread inflammatory news of Copts attacking soldiers. Many immediately concluded that sectarianism was to blame, rather than the military command which oversaw the bloodbath. The ability of Egypt’s Supreme Council for ...

Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey/AFLO/Zuma Press
Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey/AFLO/Zuma Press

On Sunday evening, Egyptian plainclothes police and the army attacked a protest by peaceful demonstrators. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, while state television spread inflammatory news of Copts attacking soldiers. Many immediately concluded that sectarianism was to blame, rather than the military command which oversaw the bloodbath. The ability of Egypt’s Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to avoid accountability for its actions lies at the heart of the problems in today’s Egypt.

This myth about Egypt’s transition runs deep. It blames the stagnation of the country’s transition on the divided protest movement, unsatisfied public sector workers, factory labors, and rural farmers. When this narrative does not suffice, the established but ineffective political parties, various Islamist parties greedy for electoral competition, and weak cabinet members are marshaled from their supporting roles to take the fall. Either way, they implicitly place the blame for Egypt’s shaky transition on the doorstep of the civilians who made the revolution.  Even the focus on parliamentary elections, the policy positions of Egypt’s current presidential contenders, or a constitution yet to be written diverts the focus from where it belong — the people actually in power.

The consensus view of the SCAF seems to be that the Council is comprised of honorable men who haphazardly rule, clumsily respond, and do not lust for power. Their repeated failures are blamed on incompetence rather than malevolence. In this account, the SCAF wants to oversee a transition to democracy but repeatedly blunders as it tries to deal with the contradictory demands of an impatient public and a never-ending series of crises. That attitude is not limited to the West — public opinion polls in Egypt show a consistent 90 percent public support for the military, suggesting that their strategy is at least in some ways working.

Blame for the sorry state of the Egyptian transition should not be shared. The SCAF is disproportionately in charge and it is disproportionately to blame for how the transition has been structured. Whether by initiating new laws against protests, strategically deploying military trials against activists and opponents, continuing to apply Emergency Law, devising electoral laws that encourage social fragmentation, framing clashes with a sectarian hue, or intimidating and censoring the press, Egypt under the SCAF represents an attempt to continue the practices of the Mubarak era despite the social changes unleashed by the revolution’s popular mobilization. It is no accident that many of the activists who participated in the January 25 revolution now vehemently oppose the SCAF.

The SCAF’s actions over the last seven months leave no doubt as to the Council’s culpability. These are elites from a regime only partially changed, who are attempting to reconstitute the system in their own image. While they were weakened because of the unpredictable surprise of popular mobilization, the SCAF is intent on reconfiguring executive power much in the same way that authority operated during the tenure of Mubarak. The difference is that now the SCAF is the executive. 

The key to understanding their actions is not to view them as rooted in incompetence. There is an underlying  strategic but purposeful drive to maximize its power and to shape a system that it can control. The outcome does not always work according to plan. But the generals have used every opportunity to maximize their legal authority in ways that do not lead to the construction of a more inclusive political arena: writing their role into the constitution extra-constitutionally in March, resorting to military courts against civilian protestors, extending the Emergency Law, disregarding their promise to leave power within six months, seeking to keep their budget exempt from parliamentary scrutiny, and more. The record is clear.

The SCAF has used the many advantages of incumbency to try to reconfigure and reinforce the authority of the executive. By sanctioning the use of repression and manipulating the legal system, SCAF is trying to gain veto power over the transition to ensure that no substantive change to Egypt’s system occurs. By operating beyond the range of institutional checks, formal channels that could call SCAF to account for their actions are blocked. Even its promise to hold elections and transfer power to civilian rule has been designed to minimize the threat to its power. The controversial election law announced unilaterally in late September and then revised under popular pressure guarantees a leading position for Islamists and former National Democratic Party members, while extending the timeline for presidential elections into 2013.

Some argue that an acceptable bargain can be found with a civilian president but the military retaining its privileges, which includes no civilian oversight of its budget or challenges to its economic holdings. Yet, there is little difference between holding power and maintaining privileges. The arrangement would be indistinguishable from the generals’ role in the Egypt of Mubarak — or, indeed, give the generals a stronger place than they enjoyed under Mubarak’s leadership.

The SCAF and its powerful foreign allies seem comfortable with, or perhaps affectionately remember, an Egypt with a dominant executive. Indeed, some of the language and actions from U.S. officials is beginning to return to old form. In June 2009, President Obama said that Mubarak was "a force for stability and good" in the region. The Secretary of State modified the statement before proclaiming that SCAF was "a force for stability and continuity" in Egypt on September 28. Meanwhile, the Secretary of Defense even managed to snag an "impromptu" moment to bowl with SCAF’s leader, General Tantawi, during his visit to Cairo on October 4.  

Such a situation in which SCAF’s attempts to redesign hegemonic executive authority and reinstate Mubarak’s menu of manipulation will not be unchallenged by the architects of the uprising. It will require and necessitate continued popular mobilization if democratic voices are to be heard. The protest movement used a decade and more of learning to overwhelm and physically defeat an extremely capable coercive apparatus last January and February. They will not sit by and allow the military to quietly resume its unchallenged authority over the country. The SCAF’s effort to enforce stability and control over revolutionary Egypt is the very thing dragging the country down into crisis.  

Joshua Stacher is Assistant Professor of Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Kent State University. His book "Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria", is forthcoming from Stanford University Press in spring 2012.

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