A military stalemate in Egypt

Protests look likely to continue unless Cairo’s army makes the concessions they want, casting a shadow over forthcoming elections. Published in MEED, 25 November 2011

More than nine months after Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, protesters and security forces are once again engaged in battles in Tahrir Square. Makeshift clinics are treating the wounded, while teargas swirls in the air. Many hundreds of protesters are reported to have been injured and dozens killed.

With just days to go before the first round of parliamentary elections, it is clear that the military junta is finding it harder to impose its will on the country. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) has been slow to hand power to a civilian government and the inertia has meant that the trust between the army and the public had gradually been seeping away.

What prompted the latest protests was the attempt by Scaf to protect the military from future parliamentary scrutiny, in a series of supra-constitutional principles released in early November.

Unpredictable consequences

“The anger and distrust with the military was very clear among the activists,” says Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the UK. “What tipped the balance was the publication of that list of supra-national principles that the army wanted to impose.”

The results of that are now being played out on the streets, with unpredictable consequences. The scale of the recent protests means that there are now doubts about whether the elections can start as planned on 28 November. If they do not, there is the risk of greater protests.

“Unless the military makes some real concessions, I think there’s probably going to be a climate of violence that will make it difficult to hold the elections,” says Marina Ottaway, senior associate at the US’ Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “This can spiral into more violence because people will say the military wants to hold on to power indefinitely. Unless the military makes a significant move there is going to be real trouble ahead.”

The military has tried to defuse the situation by bringing forward the date for a presidential election, now to be held by June 2012. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi also said, in a television speech on 22 November, that Scaf had accepted the resignation of the cabinet, which had offered to step down a day earlier.

However, he made no mention of whether the supra-constitutional principles would be withdrawn or amended and the concessions do not appear to be enough for many of the protestors. Tahrir Square remained full following his speech, with many demanding that he leaves power immediately.

When it took over in February, Scaf said it would run the country for six months or until the parliamentary and presidential elections were held. However, the electoral timetable they have laid out indicates that parliament will not convene until March, more than a year after Mubarak was ousted.

Military stubbornness in Egypt

Over the course of this year, Scaf has, at times, appeared to bow to pressure from opponents, for example, promising to pardon civilians who had been convicted in military courts. Whether it is willing to make further, more meaningful concessions now is not clear.

“Everything we’ve seen since Mubarak leaving has been confirmation of how the military has been trying to hang onto power,” says Laleh Khalili, senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the School of Oriental & African Studies in the UK. “The military is too entrenched. They are very much invested in power and won’t give it up too easily.”

Outside influences may yet increase the likelihood of concessions being made, particularly if the US was to suggest that the $1.3bn in military aid it gives to Egypt every year was at risk. To date, although the US and other countries have been pressing Scaf to hand over power in a timely fashion, none have threatened any reprisals if they do not.

The comments of White House press secretary Jay Carney on 21 November were typical of the moderate tone Western governments have been using. “We call for restraint on all sides,” he said. “It’s important that Egypt continues to move to make that transition to the democracy that the people of Egypt demanded. I don’t want to dictate specifics to Egypt, but we do believe that the process needs to move forward.”

Domestic pressure

The key area of pressure is domestic, however. Changing the dates of the presidential poll is clearly more palatable to Scaf than allowing future parliamentary scrutiny of the military’s budget. But the protestors look increasingly entrenched and the longer the standoff lasts the more tense the atmosphere is likely to get.

Whether it is willing to speed up the transition process even further will also expose how serious Scaf is about holding on to power or whether it really is content to hand over the reins to a civilian administration as it claims. Scaf’s record, to date, does not give cause for optimism though.

“The military wants its cake and to eat it,” says Ottaway. “They want the democratic process, but they also want to make sure that the constitution that comes out in the end is the one that they like. In addition, they are politically naive. I don’t know how anyone thought, in the present political climate, that they could come out with a document that says the military is not subject to civilian oversight and get away with it without a major pushback. The fact is, that has always been the situation in Egypt, but they were stupid enough to want to [write it into law].

“The military could try to diffuse the situation and make it clear they do not intend to stay forever. They need the screen of a civilian authority. Without that, I really doubt they can put an end to the violence. They are not going to put an end to this protest by using teargas.”

In the meantime, the economic situation in Egypt is only likely to worsen. An economy going through a revolution generally takes a few years to recover, but the uncertain nature of political developments in Egypt indicates that it could take far longer.

In late October, Egypt’s credit rating was downgraded by the US-based Moody’s Investors Service by one notch to B1 from Ba3. At the time, Tom Byrne, senior vice president in Moody’s Sovereign Risk Group, blamed the downgrade on the country’s ongoing economic weakness, the continued unsettled political conditions and the uncertainty over the transition to a stable civilian government.

Since then, the situation has only deteriorated. The prospects for the country are all the harder to gauge due to the opaque nature of Scaf. The military council is possibly considering making serious concessions that address the protesters’ concerns, but if that does not happen, there are any number of scenarios that could take place.

Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who leads Scaf, could be forced aside in a cosmetic change at the top. Alternatively, in what would be a more serious development, some elements of the military could refuse to continue with the crackdown on civilians. Equally, some opposition political groups could try to form an alternative government, the protest movement could splinter, or the army could find that they lack the level of popular support they had earlier in the year.

“There are divisions within the opposition,” says Hokayem. “The Muslim Brotherhood has an interest in very early elections and they don’t want a delay. [However], other political parties are not sure that this is the right way to go. They would prefer to have a civilian government immediately and then have the elections.

“There is a possibility that the majority of Egyptians are going to turn against the demonstrators because they feel they’re unruly and they create disorder. Any revolution is led by a minority. Most Egyptians are either too risk-averse or apathetic or they are simply inclined to support the current order out of fear of uncertainty and chaos, and that’s true for the current situation.”

Meaningful elections

If enough people can be convinced that the forthcoming elections will be meaningful however, it is still possible that the situation will calm down.

“The problem is not having elections, it’s having meaningful elections,” says John Chalcraft, a reader at the London School of Economics in the UK. “The reality is that the military are trying to undermine the elections by inserting these supra-constitutional principles into the constitution before it has even been written. The army has been moving to make the elections less substantive and people have been reacting against that.”

There is much at stake and the coming days could determine whether the military council will be able to deliver the new Egypt that was promised in February, or whether it too will be overtaken by events. The question of whether Egypt’s uprising should be thought of as a true revolution or simply a stealthy coup may soon be answered.