SCAF, parliament and the next constitution

I was away from Egypt for the last few days and I missed yesterday's big event: a SCAF representative invited nine foreign correspondents in what clearly was an attempt to send a message (to the US in particular) that the incoming parliament would not get to ride roughshod over the rest of the transition period, including the writing of the next constitution.

One might note several things at this juncture:

  • The oddness of making this important statement — the drawing of a red line — to foreigners rather than Egyptian politicians or even the Egyptian public;
  • That the SCAF has chosen to make this statement indirectly suggests it does not feel confident for a direct confrontation (as over the "supra-constitutional principles") and prefers sending signals at this state;
  • That this is happening as the new government and its "council of advisors" is being composed, with this council being given powers to guide the appointment of the members of the constituent assembly (a further distancing of SCAF from direct implication in this issue after the failure of the "principles")
  • The nonsensical nature of what was said — particularly the idea that the elected parliament does not represent Egyptian society, with the implication that the unelected SCAF does represent that society;
  • The dueling constitutional challenges of the next few months: on the one hand, parliament seems to have the right to appoint the constituent assembly, but SCAF wants to guide the process; and on the other, SCAF seems to have the right to appoint the government, but the incoming parliament (and Tahrir) want to have a voice in that.

I've been thinking of what the larger meaning of these elections and the recent unrest in Tahrir is, and I would venture that together these mean the beginning of an end for the 1952 regime and a transformation of Egyptian politics that will be deep and meaningful:

  • The Tahrir (and elsewhere) protests and Tantawi's speech showed for the umpteenth time that SCAF will capitulate to public pressure and that they lack self-confidence. It also showed that there is widespread dissatisfaction with the SCAF's management of the transition, whether or not most people want Tantawi out or not.
  • The elections showed that the military's political class (what was the tanzim tali3i) has collapsed and the generals no longer have an interface to manage the country, as they did through the NDP and before it the ASU. The failure of the felool, in particular, is telling of this.

To me, whether or not the Muslim Brothers, as many fear, decide to collaborate with the SCAF for a few years is irrelevant: the military regime is over, its legitimacy spent (even if there is still much respect for the institution) and the generals' power will decline as civilian rule returns. It might take time, but I would venture that short of a new coup led by charismatic officers, the era of the generals is over. They simply don't have the competence, leadership or the "will to power" to rejuvenate and relaunch the Free Officers' regime.

Below are excerpts from several pieces reporting on the meeting, or touching on the wider issue of the SCAF-parliament relationship and the military's role in politics.

NYT:

CAIRO — Egypt’s military rulers said Wednesday that they would control the process of writing a constitution and maintain authority over the interim government to check the power of Islamists who have taken a commanding lead in parliamentary elections.

In an unusual briefing evidently aimed at Washington, Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla of the ruling council asserted that the initial results of elections for the People’s Assembly do not represent the full Egyptian public, in part because well-organized factions of Islamists were dominating the voting. The comments, to foreign reporters and not the Egyptian public, may have been intended to persuade Washington to back off its call for civilian rule.

“So whatever the majority in the People’s Assembly, they are very welcome, because they won’t have the ability to impose anything that the people don’t want,” General Mulla said, explaining that the makeup of Parliament will not matter because it will not have power over the constitution.

He appeared to say that the vote results could not be representative because the Egyptian public could not possibly support the Islamists, especially the faction of ultraconservative Salafis who have taken a quarter of the early voting.

“Do you think that the Egyptians elected someone to threaten his interest and economy and security and relations with international community?” General Mulla asked. “Of course not.”

Guardian:

In a rare interview with foreign media, Major General Mokhtar el-Mulla – a leading member of Scaf – said the upcoming parliament would not be representative of all Egyptian people, and that those appointed to write a fresh constitution must also be approved by the interim cabinet and a newly-created "advisory council" of intellectuals, civilian politicians and media personalities, both of which fall under the control of Scaf.

"This is the first stage in our democracy," said Mulla, who also insisted that details of the army budget must remain shielded from democratic oversight, even after the generals return to their barracks. "In the future, parliament may have the ability to do whatever it likes. However at the moment, given the unstable situation, parliament is not representing all the Egyptian people."

"This is not out of mistrust of the parliament," he continued. "What we are seeing is free and fair elections ... but they certainly don't represent all sectors of society."

The WSJ's version zeroes in on the issue of the composition of the constituent assembly:

In a veiled reference to the Islamist political groups who have already won a total of more than 60% of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections, Maj. Gen. Mukhtar Mulla, the deputy minister of defense, said the incoming Parliament doesn't represent the full spectrum of Egyptian society.

A military-appointed council of advisers and the existing military-approved cabinet of ministers, which now helps to rule the country, will need to agree on the appointment of the 100-member constituent assembly who will write the constitution, said Maj. Gen. Mulla.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces "will not impose specific people," Maj. Gen. Mulla said in a meeting with reporters. "However, we should agree on the features of this constituent assembly before appointing names."

FT:

“This election is the end of the old regime and the end of the Mubarak state,” said Mohamed Aboul Ghar, leader of the Egyptian Social Democrats, one of three secular and liberal parties that forged an electoral alliance and secured 15 per cent of the vote.

He dismissed as “prob­ably now finished” plans by the military council – resisted by Islamist parties before the election – to impose a document of principles in the constitution that will be drafted by parliament over the coming months. The document was partly intended as a safeguard against potential efforts to produce a heavily Islamic charter, but it also included articles shielding the military from civilian scrutiny and giving it a political role beyond the end of the transition period.

“I think the Muslim Brotherhood have seen a fight [with the military council] as inevitable, but they have wanted to pick their place and not just to hold protests in Tahrir Square,” said the western diplomat. “They needed legitimacy to take on the military. [If Tahrir protests] were led by democratically elected parliamentarians, they’d be much stronger.”

Sameh Saif el-Yazal, a retired army general, said he foresaw “many clashes” between parliament and the military council, which he said was still likely to try to hold out for at least some constitutional principles.

Nathan Brown, writing at Carnegie:

What the SCAF failed to do was to pledge to carry out presidential elections before the constitution is written. And while it has not said anything more on the “supraconstitutional principles,” it has not repudiated them. There are limited indications that the SCAF intends not to change the sequence at all but simply to rush the process at breakneck speed—to have the constitution written immediately and then move to a referendum, all before the new president is elected. This kind of schedule would not only leave the SCAF in total control over the process; it would also be extraordinarily, even unrealistically, quick.

Two little noticed details make such a timetable a special concern. First the “supraconstitutional principles,” if they are dusted off, will give the SCAF still more power over constitution drafting if the assembly does not meet the deadline. Second, the entire process would take place under the shadow of a state of emergency that expires in June of 2012 (according to the person who led the drafting of March’s constitutional amendments, the state of emergency rubber stamped by the Mubarak-era parliament should have expired, but the SCAF advances—and enforces—a rival interpretation that leaves it in place until June).

Thus the SCAF’s concession may simply leave Egyptians with an unworkable, rushed process that leaves the military’s levers of control more powerful rather than less.

Parliamentarians now being elected may therefore find not only that they cannot oversee the executive or stop the SCAF from writing laws, but also that that their most significant task—naming those who will write the constitution—has been robbed of much of its force by the generals.

Robert Springborg, in al-Masri al-Youm, looks at Tantawi's offer of a referendum and argues that the idea is that the SCAF would win such a referendum on military rule is not so clear-cut:

The data as a whole then reveals that although the SCAF is losing popularity, no civilian force is gaining support, and that the military’s identification with a statist as opposed to market approach to economic policy places it closer to popular opinion than many civilian politicians and organizations, even including the Muslim Brotherhood. No doubt the military as a whole has lost some of its popularity along with the SCAF, but it does remain the most popular institution in the country. The Field Marshal, in other words, seems to have assessed the situation accurately.

But if this is indeed the calculation underlying his stated willingness to hold a referendum, he is overlooking two potential problems. The first is that voters may distinguish between the SCAF and the military. They may see no contradiction in continuing to hold the military in high esteem, while blaming the SCAF for the failures of “the revolution.” Thus the wording of any potential referendum would be critical. If the SCAF were identified as the organization to continue holding power, rather than the vaguer term of “the military,” its chances of victory would be less.

The second problem is more profound and threatening to the SCAF. It is that many in the military fear that the reputation and interests of their institution might be threatened by the actions of the SCAF. This concern would be heightened by a referendum, especially one in which the wording of the proposition would obscure the differentiation between the SCAF and the military, thereby tarring the reputation of the latter with the brush of the former.

Moreover, a referendum intended to flex the SCAF’s political muscles at the expense of civilians could imperil Washington’s vital support for the Egyptian military, including the annual provision of US$1.3 billion in military assistance. Support has been building in Congress for this assistance to be reduced or suspended in reaction to various actions of the SCAF. Although the Obama administration has continued to defend the allocation, it put down a marker against the SCAF on 25 November with the White House statement that “the new Egyptian government must be empowered with real authority immediately.” If the SCAF were to signal its outright rejection of this advice, such as by proceeding to hold the referendum mooted by Tantawi, the Obama administration might let Congressional opposition to Egyptian military assistance score at least a partial victory. The resultant damage to its professional capabilities would add to the Egyptian military’s concern that the SCAF is not effectively defending its interests.

Also in al-Masri al-Youm, Amr al-Zant argues that a military (dare one say fascistic?) ethos permeates Egyptian society due to the army's dominance since 1952 and exists among the MB, which is allying with SCAF while jockeying for dominance within that alliance:

In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood accepted and exploited the existing perceptions. It fused a severe aura associated with the sanctity of religious symbols, with quasi-military shows of discipline and strength and actual rapprochement with the ruling military institution — images and associations that helped complement its newly acquired formal legitimacy.

On 23 July, the 59th anniversary of the Free Officer’s Coup, and as the secular activists were being crushed, beaten and dispersed in Abbasseya by security forces and local residents during their aborted protest march to the SCAF's headquarters, the Brotherhood was feting the inauguration of its new political party with a gala reception. The legitimizing congregation included the interior minister, who had to leave the gathering early in order to "deal" with the demonstrations.

More recently, after instigating massive demonstrations protesting proposed constitutional principles that enshrined the civic nature of the Egyptian state and formalized the military’s special status in it, the Brotherhood stood back as secular activists (and many ordinary people) battled security forces for days on end, losing dozens of members and hundreds of eyes. Despite the brutal crackdown, the Brotherhood held firm to its newly rejuvenated implicit alliance with the junta.

Throughout the latest conflagration, the SCAF and the Brotherhood accused the liberal activists of inciting societal chaos and attempting to sabotage the scheduled elections, which the Brotherhood wanted at any cost, even after General Shahin explicitly attested that the resulting parliament would be virtually powerless. Indeed, whatever the powers of the upcoming parliament, it is hard to overestimate the importance of the elections, since their results, like those of the referendum, will assume the role of a powerful rhetorical tool, strengthening the hand of those who come out on top and legitimizing all sorts of maneuvers. The outcome may thus further consolidate, stabilize and formalize their relationship with the military.