The power grab in the past week by the Egyptian military and the lingering Mubarak-era establishment, operating through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is such a blatant attempt to prevent a truly democratic and republican system of government from taking root in the country that it cannot possibly succeed. It will generate tremendous counter forces in society from tens of millions of ordinary and politicized Egyptians, who insist on achieving the promise of the January 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, and ushered in a slow transition to a more democratic system of governance.
SCAF and its Mubarak-era allies managed within a few days to go against the two strongest sentiments that have driven ordinary Egyptians for the past 18 months: first, the desire to see the old guard that tormented the citizenry through authoritarian abuse of power held accountable, punished and kept out of power in the new democratic Egypt; and second, the desire to see the military establishment oversee an orderly transition by turning over power to an elected, legitimate president and parliament.
SCAF’s old generals and colonels sharply offended and provoked much of the population by heavy-handedly trying to keep the legitimately elected Muslim Brotherhood out of power in both the Parliament and the presidency. The armed forces signaled that they would only turn over some powers to a civilian establishment, while retaining most powers for themselves, and for good measure keeping control of the process of writing a new Constitution.
The military council has succumbed to the same disease that is challenging, and in places bringing down, dictators and authoritarian military rulers across the Arab world: its members believe that only they know what is best for the people of Egypt, and they alone will determine how political power and decision-making authority are dispersed in the country.
This megalomaniacal and arrogant sense of all-knowing wisdom caused the officers to overplay their hand and issue a series of imperial-style edicts giving themselves supreme power that overrides the authority of Parliament, the president and the courts. This display of monumental political greed, shortsightedness and sheer stupidity will now send Egypt into a protracted period of political struggle, in which political forces in the country will compete openly for power and legitimacy. The critical issue now is to see which combination of actors can enjoy both power and legitimacy at the same time.
This will take time. Most basic elements of the Egyptian political system are undefined or nonexistent. We do not know if the current Parliament will actually be dissolved, as the supreme constitutional court decreed last week that it should be. We will not know officially for a few days who is the winner of the presidential election. We do not know the powers that the president and a new Parliament will enjoy.
We do not know how long SCAF’s military rulers will remain in power, or whether they will retain some, or many, powers if they do turn over political authority to an elected civilian administration. And we do not know what kind of constitutional commission will write a new Constitution, when that document will come into force, whether it will be credibly ratified by the population, and how it apportions power, rights, responsibility and accountability.
Egypt this week is a country in post-revolutionary turmoil and deep transition, without a governance system. But it will be fine. It will emerge from this transitional moment in better shape than it has been at any time in the past two generations – because the Egypt that will configure itself during the coming phase will enjoy the unprecedented quality of being a country that has been defined and shaped by its own people.
We know very well from polls, qualitative research, and a chat with any stranger you choose on a stroll along the Nile that Egyptians respect their armed forces and are deeply devout. They appreciate the values, order and certitude that emanate from a strong military and religious dictates. We also know, however, that they do not want their country to be ruled by military or religious officials.
The Muslim Brotherhood indicated in recent weeks, during the presidential runoff election, that it understood this. So, it assured Egyptians that a Muslim Brotherhood presidential victory would open the door to a leadership that included all quarters and elements of the population. SCAF did not understand the same lesson; it assumed that the trust it enjoyed was endless, and allowed it to run amok and grab power for itself and the officer corps for generations to come.
The enormous power of populist legitimacy that was unleashed in January 2011 and toppled the government will now regroup and reassert itself in more complex and institutionalized political forms than merely through demonstrations in public squares. Through its childish power grab, SCAF guarantees that the slow political development of Egypt will speed up dramatically, mainly in opposition to the perception that a transitional military council is trying to transform itself into a permanent military junta. That will not happen, as the coming weeks and months will demonstrate.
(The writer is editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star newspaper, where this article was published on June 21, 2012.)