Egyptians can only hope that the events of the past week represent a temporary setback in the democratic transition, rather than an irreversible regression to authoritarianism – marking the end of hope and the start of a new era of despair and political pathology.
Sadly, 18 months of constant struggle for democracy and rights in Egypt has not only preserved the ruling Supreme Council for Armed Forces (SCAF)’s behind-the-scenes role in puppeteering all levers of the state – military, economic, and foreign relations — in a vacuum of oversight and accountability, but it has actually expanded the powers of the military to an extent not seen since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule. On June 17, the SCAF adopted amendments to the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration that legalize the military’s longstanding entrenchment in political life, further consolidating its status as a super-state – far more powerful than a mere “state within a state.”
During the past 18 months, political elites have feared the replication of the Romanian model in nwhich counter-revolutionary forces would regain power and resuscitate the deposed political system; or worse, the establishment of an Iranian-style system in which a radical Islamic group would attain power and install a new version of a police state more oppressive than the one built by Hosni Mubarak.
However, the latest developments suggest that Egypt is most likely to follow in the footsteps of Pakistan and Indonesia, where the military has fostered Islamist political movements, integrated them into the state machinery, and used them to its advantage by cultivating a mutually beneficial partnership in which Islamists appear to dominate the political scene while the military maintains power behind the scenes. In order to avoid the Romanian scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood strategically broke off its temporary alliance with revolutionary forces to form an alliance with the SCAF – just one month after the revolution. Islamists conspired with the SCAF to advance what they thought was their shared vision for Egypt’s political future. But yet again, as the course of history should have taught us, the SCAF was playing out a fifth scenario that was never communicated to the Brotherhood, the Nasserist one, to the detriment of Egypt’s democratic aspirations.
Within this scenario, the Supreme Constitutional Court’s (SCC) decision to dissolve the Parliament on June 14 was not strictly speaking a judicial coup, but rather a blatant military coup that has been in the works since last September, when the SCAF unilaterally amended the Constitutional Declaration and related electoral laws to allow party members to compete during the parliamentary elections, either as part of party lists or for the individual seats to the disadvantage of independent candidates running in single-winner races, thus setting the stage for a constitutional challenge to the election results.The SCAF, well informed of two similar previous decisions by the same Court, used the judiciary as a legal tool to neutralize the Brotherhood’s legislative power by disbanding the Parliament it controlled.
The week of June 18 witnessed a rapid power grab as the SCAF moved to legally secure its grip on power. On June 13, the Justice Minister empowered all members of the Egyptian General Intelligence Services and military police to search and arrest civilians, and the SCAF adopted a decree on June 18 ordering the re-composition of the National Defense Council, a 16-member body that advises the president on all matters relating to the country’s national security. The council reportedly includes 10 SCAF members, giving the military a controlling supermajority over its decisions.
The recent amendments to the Constitutional Declaration effectively introduced a state of martial law in which the SCAF controls legislation without oversight from elected leaders. The amendments authorize the military to infringe on the powers of the President, Upper House, and Constitutional Assembly, and in absence of a Lower House, delegate all legislative powers to the SCAF. The decrees by the SCAF can only be reviewed by a newly elected parliament, after a constitution has been drafted, and while the president will possess ratification power, this power will be constrained by a system of checks and balances introduced by the recent amendments. The SCAF now has the power to veto a request by the president to commission the military to conduct policing activities. This provision manipulates the complicated constitutional procedures regarding the declaration of emergency laws, giving the military broad powers to define national security policy without civilian oversight. The amendments further stipulate the non-liability of members of the armed forces during the conduct of these policing activities.
Additionally, the amendments subject the elected Constituent Assembly to the SCAF’s oversight and intervention. The latter can dissolve the former without judicial review and appoint a new Constituent Assembly with no predefined criteria or transparent procedures for the selection process. To further enshrine its role in the constitutional process, the SCAF has granted itself the right, along with the newly elected President, Supreme Council of Judicial Organizations, Prime Minster, or a fifth of the Constituent Assembly, to veto any article of the drafted constitution if deemed contradictory with the higher interests of the state, the revolution’s goals and its main principles, or with Egyptian constitutional customs. Moreover, the SCAF has reserved the right to veto presidential declarations of war (traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the executive branch), and there were also rumors – later denied by the SCAF – that the military would claim the right to appoint its own defense minister. This is only the start of an unfinished coup, facilitated by the Brotherhood, and of which Islamists too will become the victims.
Voting in the second round of presidential elections, many Egyptians chose to ignore their predicament by boycotting. Now, Egypt will end up in the undemocratic hands of either the SCAF or Brotherhood, two faces of the same coin, both of which are leading the Egyptian political system down a dangerous path toward despotism.
Ziad Abdel Tawab is the Deputy Director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.