Recent bloody clashes between the Egyptian military and Christian protesters have left the country on a brink of a rapidly-souring transition. Not only has the military, the only coherent institutional survivor from Mubarak's epoch, lost its credibility after opening fire on civilian protesters, but it is also facing mounting accusations of partiality and lack of neutrality in managing the transition. The last thing Egypt needs now is a biased arbitrator. Through its heavy-handed involvement in political conflict, which contradicts its role as caretaker power and facilitator to the transition, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is pushing Egypt towards a political impasse.
The larger context surrounding Sunday’s unprecedented violence is the utter failure of SCAF in running the country in the post-Mubarak era. Democratization theorists tell us that the quality of a political transition is contingent upon the rationality of those who supervise it. The more they restrain their own political ambitions, the more smoothly the genuine transition can proceed, and the less mistakes they will commit. They also tell us that the military’s involvement in political conflict degrades the quality of democracy and hampers the potential for democratic consolidation. After eight months of ruling the country, it’s pretty clear that Egypt’s military is keen neither to transfer power to an elected civilian government nor to construct real progress towards a sustainable democracy.
“Black Sunday”, whereby 25 Egyptians have been killed and some 300 wounded, is a watershed in Egypt’s lengthy transition. It reveals how fragile Egypt has become after the revolution and casts doubt over the capacity or will of the incumbent elite to ensure a peaceful transition. Three major mistakes the SCAF has committed over the past few months have resulted in the current political crisis. First is this attitude towards the transition. For the junta, the transition is not, and maybe should never be, a complete rupture with the old system, inevitably at their expense and a threat to their entrenched economic and social privileges. Instead, they envisage a fresh round of military domination over the political space, one that is less coercive and more discreet. Ironically in this regard, SCAF is itself perpetuating a familiar aspect of Mubarak’s regime, and one which the revolution sought to eradicate.
Second is the significant shift in SCAF’s discourse since the downfall of Mubarak and their assumption of power. By insisting on prolonging the transition and postponing any power transfer to civilians until 2013, according to the shaky road map SCAF has outlined, the military is deeply suspicious of civilian competence in ruling the country. SCAF’s leaders have inherited the old narrative and mindset from Nasser’s era which celebrated military supremacy over the civilian elite. Nasser’s doctrine was: Nasser for the Army, the Army for Egyptian People, and the Egyptian People for Arabian People (Walker 2011). However, neither the field marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF, nor his deputy the Chief of Staff Sami Anan have Nasser’s gifted charisma that can allow them to manipulate the public. Not surprisingly, such lack of confidence in civilians’ ability to run the country underlies the restricted and limited powers of Essam Sharaf’s government which has become the scapegoat of SCAF’s blunders.
The third major mistake lies in SCAF’s tendency to manipulate political forces. Since last March’s referendum which set provisional constitutional amendments for the transitional period, the military sought to co-opt the old, as well as the new, political parties. Two weeks ago the military shrewdly persuaded some 15 parties to sign a document that granted SCAF another two years in power. Clearly, the military does not side with one party against the other, however, it manipulates all the actors involved in order to slow down the revolutionary momentum of change. SCAF replicates Mubarak’s constant recourse to the tactic of divide and rule in dealing with the oppisition. The junta believes that the more you keep the opposition fragmented and divided, the less the public will push for civilian rule. Political factions are all too complicit with this tactic, entering into bargains with SCAF at the expense of the longer term goals of the transition. They all know how to criticize SCAF: however, they are blatantly incapable of agreeing on how to enforce it to leave power.
Nevertheless, it would be quite wrong to presume, as many commentators and analysts have concluded, that what the recent clashes in Egypt tell us most about is a sectarian or religious conflict between the military and the Egyptian Copts. Rather it uncovers the sense of empowerment and self-inflation of the SCAF in the face of all Egyptians, regardless of their religion or political affiliation. While the religious dimension cannot be ignored in such a pious society, the main message is about the costly nature of Mubarak’s legacy. Those who protested on Sunday bear many of the same grievances as those who rally to Tahrir Square every Friday, calling for civilian rule. They are all victims of the chronic problems inherited from Mubarak’s reign. It would be unrealistic as well as unfair to portray the Egyptian army as a sectarian entity with respect to the Copts. This may be a subtle distinction, between the habit of divide and rule and sectarianism, but a crucial one to understand in the Egyptian context.
To conclude, for many Egyptians, public good will towards the military is at its vanishing point, and the only possible way out of this terrible situation is to transfer power to civilian rule before next June. But this is unlikely as long as the junta believes that Egypt cannot thrive without being led by a person in a military uniform.