How to Spell 'Train Wreck' in Hieroglyphics?

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's anyone's guess what's next for Egyptians. But one thing is clear from the incredible events that have taken place in Cairo in recent days: Egypt's popular revolution has been abducted by unelected military officers. The ruling generals of the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) have re-seized what they really never intended to give away: the keys to a peaceful transition to a civilian-ruled Egypt -- Muslim Brotherhood-led or otherwise.

The astonishing decree that the SCAF issued over the weekend, neatly gift-wrapped in what the ruling generals deemed an "interim constitution," consolidates power in the military, postpones any new election until a new, military-approved constitution is drafted by its handpicked scribes, and effectively retains any future legislative authority to the military leadership.  Coupled with the sudden decision by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the Islamist-controlled parliament -- it is truly a counter-coup to the revolution that brought about Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011.  

Memo to revolutionaries: When you don't cut off the snake's head, it doesn't stop biting. Since 1952 the military has ruled Egypt, and 60 years later the addictive lure of the good life and raw power is apparently still too appetizing to relinquish.

It is now crystal clear that the military never intended to cede authority despite its pledges to the contrary in the days following Mubarak's overthrow. Machiavellian in its mischief during Egypt's post-Mubarak tumultuous 16 months, the SCAF cunningly pursued a divide and conquer strategy to prevent the Islamists or secular liberals from gaining a monopoly over Egypt's civilian institutions.

When the Egyptian parliamentary elections yielded an Islamist-oriented majority the generals successfully manipulated the judiciary into dissolving it. When the Muslim Brotherhood broke its "pledge" not to field a presidential candidate, and went ahead anyway, the SCAF drafted Ahmed Shafiq, the last prime minister under Mubarak and a SCAF loyalist, to battle the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi to the finish line. When it became likely in the runoff round of presidential voting that Morsi would like beat Shafiq, the SCAF moved to consolidate power and defang any future president from exercising credible executive authority that could possible challenge the military.

If Morsi is officially declared the numerical victor over Shafiq as the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and independent media predict, it looks like the Brothers will have earned a hollow victory -- for the time being and I predict that as the assertions of election fraud and voting irregularities pile up, it's not past the military to declare the election void or invalid pending further investigation of voting irregularities that could likely stuff more "uncounted" ballots for Shafiq given that the Egyptian election commission is stuffed with judges appointed under the Mubarak regime.

I have some modicum of sympathy for the hapless liberal secularists and the military since a Muslim Brotherhood monopoly on power is a recipe for intolerance and dictated intimidation by an organization that has places obedience to Sha'ariah law above the rights of individuals. An open, democratic, transparent civil society is not a tenet of the Brothers' charter.

Massive protests in Tahrir Square have (temporarily, again) united the disunited secularists and the disciplined Muslim Brothers for another round of massive popular protests. But the SCAF must be feeling quite smug these days, fearing little from the consequences of their acts. Like weeks past, they are banking on the fact that any unity between the opposing camps is as fleeting as raindrop on the Sahara.    

All this raises the question: what went so wrong with Egypt's revolutionary transition to democracy that has transformed almost every popularly decided outcome into a SCAF-inspired train wreck?  

First, the Egyptian military was determined never to permit any other Egyptian authority -- legislative or executive -- to exert control over it or the financial largess that enables the military to remain the most important economic power in Egypt.

The SCAF first focused its gun sights on the secularists, whose ardor to bring the military down to size and open its books up to the equivalent of a Florida sunshine law, was the most threatening at the time. After conspiring with the Islamists to keep the secular liberals from ever uniting into a potentially effective opposition the SCAF then turned their sights on the Brotherhood. When the Brothers and their Salafist allies swept the parliamentary elections, the SCAF began challenging the role of the parliament to draft a constitution. When the Brothers broke their pledge not to field a presidential candidate who apparently is on the cusp of winning -- providing the Brotherhood a virtual monopoly of power -- the SCAF had had enough: having overplayed their electoral hand, the Muslim Brotherhood had to be stopped when it was never supposed to have even run a presidential candidate in the first place.

Second, the SCAF, if anything, is playing strategic defense and tactical offense. It has the troops to quash anything that gets out of hand in Tahrir Square, and has a plurality of revolutionary-exhausted Egyptians to point to as an excuse to maintain law and order. The belated interference by Egypt's so-called independent electoral commission and judges is a SCAF-dictated sloppy exercise of raw power to thwart the Islamitisation of Egypt, which the military knows could kill the goose that lays the golden egg of billions of dollars in U.S. military assistance and economic aid.

Third, the paleo-SCAF leadership knows all too well that in its ripe old age it could wind up in prison like the ailing Mubarak if it cedes meaningful power to the Brothers or secularists who shed whatever admiration Egyptians traditionally had for the almighty institution. The SCAF and its civilian allies have already jettisoned a number of Mubarak regime loyalists to the dogs to keep them at bay, but with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate about to win the presidency, that was the last straw since any alliance of convenience that seemed to benefit the Brothers and the generals at times during the past year eroded when the Brothers won control of the parliament.  

To let off steam, the massive protests will likely compel the SCAF to recalibrate, yield some ground to the Brothers, then again to the secularists, but so what in the long run?

In other words, does all this matter to anyone outside of Egypt?

The real fear I have is that an emboldened Muslim Brotherhood decides to escalate the stakes and challenge the military for control of the streets of Egypt's cities in a sustained struggle for power with their secularist pawns in the front lines to take the first responsive salvos. That would transform Egypt's nascent, nasty revolution into a potential civil war. The resulting bloodshed and thirst for vengeance will drive Egypt to the precipice of economic collapse and a regional crisis that defies predictable outcome.

Perhaps the answer lies in the hieroglyphics inside King Tut's tomb because no mere mortal seems to know where this all leads. Surely, inside or outside Egypt, no one other than extremists stand to gain if Egypt descends into a sustained state of chaotic disorder. All the more reason why the generals must be sequestered to come up with some sort of political circuit breaker to avoid an ultimate showdown in the streets.

Whether they will listen or not will depend on whether Egypt's Arab and western allies exert sufficient common sense on them, backed up by real threats to choke off their financial lifelines on which they depend. But given their actions so far I am concerned the SCAF will place self-preservation ahead of the national order.
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