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 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.

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

The Middle East Channel

Violent crackdown on Coptic Christians extinguishes faith in Egyptian military

Violent crackdown on Coptic Christians extinguishes faith in Egyptian military

The Egyptian cabinet held emergency talks on Monday after Sunday's clashes resulted in the death of over 25 people and the injury of nearly 300, mostly Coptic Christians. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called for an investigation by a fact-finding commission urging "all measures against all those proven to have been involved, either directly or by incitement." Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said, "These events have taken us back several steps." Outrage over Sunday's violence has sparked severe criticism of the ruling military, with the Copts joining political liberals stating the public no longer has faith that the SCAF will provide for a democratic transition. Party leader Ayman Nour said, "The credit that the military received from the people in Tahrir Square just ran out yesterday."


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  • Daily Snapshot


    Angry Egyptian Christians protest outside St. Mark's Cathedral against the military ruling council, in Cairo on October 10, 2011, a day after 24 people, mostly Christians, died in clashes with Egyptian security forces. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS (Photo credit should read MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images)

    Arguments & Analysis

    ‘Assad's Alawites: The guardians of the throne' (Nir Rosen, Al Jazeera English)

    "When Hafez al-Assad took power, he eased the Baath Party's secularisation, attempting to reconcile Alawites with Sunni religious practices. He also proceeded to emasculate the Baath Party, turning it into the Assad Party. Alawite solidarity and the support of some rich Sunni families bound the regime together. And as the Baath Party, unions and syndicates were weakened, conservative Sunni Islam filled the social vacuum, with Islamic charities allowed to play a growing role. Sunni clerics were also given more freedom -- which first increased the regime's base of support, but now fuels divisions between Sunni groups and the Alawite-dominated security services. Iraq's Saddam Hussein "Islamised" his Baath party to legitimise his rule, but the Alawite Assad family appear to fear giving a democratic opening to the Sunni majority will cause the entire system to collapse. The weakness of the Baath party also means the regime cannot mobilise people around anything but Bashar al-Assad, who took power following his father's death in 2000. It is easy to tell if you're in an Alawite area in Syria these days. It will be the place where every available space is festooned with pictures of President Bashar, his brother Maher or their father Hafez. It is a cult of personality, with walls bearing the graffiti: "Assad forever," while men zip back and forth on motorcycles, all wearing t-shirts bearing Bashar's portrait. An Alawite accent can help get you through a military checkpoint. The taxi driver who took me to the Damascus suburb of Duma -- an opposition stronghold -- was an Alawite from Latakia. He spoke to the officers at the checkpoint in an Alawite accent and told them I was Lebanese. They waved us in without looking at my identity card. Leaving the town later, however, without the protection of the Alawite cabbie, I was stopped and removed from the car."

    ‘How liberals are losing the battle for Egypt's future' (Thanassis Cambanis, The Atlantic)

    Eight months after a euphoric wave of people power stunned Egypt's complacent and abusive elite, it's possible to see the clear outlines of the players competing to take over from Mubarak and his circle, and to assess the likely outcomes. The scorecard is distasteful. The uprising -- it can't yet be fairly termed a revolution -- forced the regime to jettison its CEO, Hosni Mubarak, in order to preserve its own prerogatives. In the last two months, that regime has made clear how strong it feels. In September, in quick succession the military extended the hated state of emergency for another year, effectively rendering any notion of rule of law in Egypt meaningless; unilaterally published election rules that favor wealthy incumbents and remnants of the old regime, and that disadvantage new, post-Mubarak competitors; indefinitely postponed presidential elections, and refused any timetable for handing over authority to a civilian; reinstated full media censorship, threatening television stations and imposing a gag order on all reporting about the military; and the country's authoritarian ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, unleashed a personal public relations campaign on state television odiously reminiscent of Mubarak's image-making. Furthermore, the government advanced its investigation of "illegal NGOs" that allegedly took foreign money, including virtually every important and independent dissident organization."

    ‘In Syria a U.S. diplomat is leading, not a soldier' (David Ignatius, The Daily Star)

    "To meet the protesters, Ford has taken considerable personal risks. When he defied the government and bravely traveled to the embattled city of Hama in July, his vehicle was showered with roses by grateful protesters. But he was pelted with eggs and tomatoes by a pro-government mob when he visited an opposition leader in Damascus late last month. And the U.S. Embassy itself was attacked by pro-government thugs in July. Wherever he goes, Ford asks practical questions -- pressing the activists about incentives for Syrian business, or reforming the government budget. He counsels the embattled protesters against military action -- which would only bring on a vicious civil war. He thinks time works against Assad, if protesters can avoid the trap of sectarian conflict. It's a narrow ledge that Ford is walking. But it's good to see an American diplomat in the lead for a change, instead of the U.S. military."