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Hichem Karoui: The master of the game
November 26, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Has the Egyptian revolution taken a bad start or rather a bad turn? If the answer is: “a bad start,” this is a disaster, for it means that the Egyptians have been deceived or even betrayed. The next question would be subsequently: are the present events going to fix it?  Are the demonstrations in Maydan Al Tahrir and most of all the clashes with the security forces, and the blood spilling, the “right way” to do it?

If the answer is: “rather a bad turn,” it is even worse. For it means that the revolution was a complete success and the democratic change under way; but some bad guys tried to exploit the ambiguous situation of a transitory period preceding the announced elections to advance their own interests, and the result is the current mess. The next question would be then: is it a defeat for democracy?

I will not try to answer these complicated questions in such a short column. Yet, I do think that the right answer may be halfway between the first and the second hypotheses.

Let’s assume that the people of Tahrir Square who made the revolution against Mubarak regime were completely wrong in trusting the military to protect them while moving smoothly toward a democracy. Those who hold such assumptions argue that, unlike Tunisia, the military have actually ruled Egypt since 1952. All Egyptian presidents (Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak) came from the military. It is normal that in sixty years of unquestioned rule, the Egyptian state becomes gripped into a collusion of vested interests to the benefit of the ruling class, which is a combination of military, businessmen, and politicians. This elite has ruled Egypt and formed the backbone of its system. 

The revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and some of his cronies offered them to the crowd maintaining a fiction of revolutionary justice. That seemed to suggest that the revolution succeeded in toppling the regime. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) vowed to “ensure a peaceful transition of authority within a free and democratic system that allows an elected civilian authority to take charge of governing the country.” Yet, the system itself has not profoundly changed. The only fact that the SCAF — and not a civilian body (a transitory government) — was in charge of monitoring the political process in a country where a democratic revolution occurred, is evidence that the game was wrong from the outset.

Some would contend that nothing proves that the SCAF seeks to continue ruling the country after the parliamentary elections, or return it to a unique-party system. No, of course, the SCARF cannot impose such a scenario; not after such a revolution; not after the new move toward Tahrir Square.

Nonetheless, we have several examples of countries where the military, without appearing in the picture, would impose their choice discreetly, and continue all the same to pull the strings from behind the curtains. In such a case, the military, apparently subordinate to the civilian rule, are actually the masters of the game. Of course, the Egyptian military are not so stupid as to pretend ruling the country directly and publicly. Such a behaviour would provoke criticism, mobilise the people against them, and destabilise Egypt.

The SCAF had initially announced its plan to rule the country for a transition period of six months, at the end of which presidential elections would be held. This time frame was later changed, with parliamentary and consultative council elections rescheduled. The current transition period could be extended, with the time of the presidential election becoming uncertain.

Moreover, the generals have not shown much wisdom in some of their decisions. If you do not consider the fact of trying 7,000 people (mostly civilians of course) before military courts in itself as an aberration almost ignored by the media, how about the announcement made in May 2011 by General Mamdouh Shaheen (on behalf of the SCAF) purporting that the military should be granted “some kind of insurance” under Egypt’s new constitution, “so that it does not fall under the whim of a president?” He went to the extent of stressing that the military should not be investigated by the parliament!

In other words, they were asking for immunity.

Such a claim is not only weird in the wake of a popular revolution; it is also against the very spirit of democracy.

Does it make sense to build democracy while allowing the military to be “above” the laws that govern everybody? What are they? Angels? Saints? Supermen?

When in July, they announced the adoption of guidelines for drafting the constitution, their propositions were seen as paving the way to give them a legal ground enabling them to interfere in domestic politics, under such or such circumstance, with such or such excuse. This behaviour was also considered as possibly indicating the retention of the decision in matters related to Egypt’s foreign policy. Any civilian government, even democratically elected, would then run the country under the supervision of the SCAF, which is the real master of the game. Under such a system, democratic institutions would work in such a way that would always preserve the power balance between the military and the civilians for the benefit of the former: the power of the military would remain safe as long as no political group is able to challenge it.

The revolution has demanded political and economic change, and both spheres fall beyond the reach and the competence of the military. The alternative to the Mubarak regime cannot be constructed on the marginalisation of the demands of Tahrir Square. This is the first time in the Arab world’s modern history where the commandment of a revolution does not come from the top but from the basis. The people of Egypt have proved that they have a will of their own; but so far, their revolution seems to be heading nowhere, for a will is nothing without a well-organised head.
The author is an expert in US-Middle East relations
at the Arab Center for Research and Policy
Studies (Doha Institute).

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