Egypt: From ‘Election first’ to ‘SCAF first’

The military’s latest decree will either crush dissent – or empower activists to retake the streets.

SCAF in Port Said
Lessons learned from Egypt's revolution may prove fatal to the power of interim military rulers [Reuters]

The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) may have just shot itself in the foot.

While Egypt and Egyptians have been engaging in one exercise to reclaim popular sovereignty , won on the back of a glorious revolution, SCAF has, seemingly, been scheming a different game: to stem the tide of revolution and fledgling democratisation, and usurp public office. This chapter of the Egyptian revolution will require close historical scrutiny.

In three days, SCAF has committed two massive blunders: on June 14, a judicial coup (the dissolution of the Lower House based on the unconstitutionality of the Elections Law and the Isolation Law, qanun al-‘azl), aggravated by a constitutional coup (issuing non-democratic amendments to the interim constitution). The Field Marshal and company may turn out to be out of their depth for misusing law to uphold illegal practices.

In principle, by issuing the interim constitution, SCAF has suspended both Egypt’s revolution and more than one year of popular voting in referendum, bicameral parliamentary elections and this weekend’s presidential elections. Even the ousted president never exercised “dropping the writ” with such disregard for popular will.

SCAF outlines its explicit terms leaving the new president with limited powers

SCAF first? This is what must be asked if Egypt is to safeguard the twin tracks of revolution and democratic reconstruction. The June 30 projected handover of power by SCAF to civilians is now void.

SCAF first? The constitution first?

The early debates over how to engage with the newly earned freedom following the January 25 revolution included advocates for and against the initiation of democracy through constitution-framing and parliamentary elections. The question was put to bed in the constitutional referendum of March 19, 2011. Voter turnout did not match the revolutionary engagement displayed in the 18 days that culminated in triumph and the end of the Mubarak dynasty. Eighteen million voted; with 14 million endorsing the “elections first” verdict.

There is merit in both positions, but this is not what the debate is or should be right now. The key thing is that due process must be respected. To ignore voters’ choice is tantamount to undermining democratic processes. This is more so in countries such as Egypt and Tunisia where an “electoral democracy” of sorts was, for decades, tailored to the whims of singular rulers.

The amendments to the interim constitution are an insult to the intelligence of the Egyptian people, to their revolution and to their struggle and sacrifices. They were issued when counting the vote from the Morsi-Shafiq weekend presidential run-off was underway. The timing not only closes the circle of a “coup”, but it also defies popular will.

“Elections first” or “constitution first” is a chioce rendered meaningless. It is SCAF first. SCAF’s own writ erodes all electoral gains from the past, as well as the latest vote to decide which civilian presides over Egypt through a relatively democratic process, a first for Egypt and much of the rest of the Arab world. Thus the democratic process has been emptied of all significance and consequence for future transition by an ill-thought act – literally a coup except in its manner of execution.

SCAF’s amendments

The seven amendments made public in al-Jaridah Al-Rasmiyyah [“Official Gazette”] are couched in the language of “national interest” and “the revolution’s principles”. And this is language that is calculated to soften the blow of the quasi-constitutional coup.

The crux of the amendments is the president-elect will be handed an office devoid of all powers. Maybe Morsi and Shafiq – the latter already vilified by millions who view him as the generals’ own candidate – have both been no more than mere pawns on a chess board designed by the military top brass.

“Under this provision – the ‘small print’ to scrutinise closely – military officers’ power (thabtiyyah) to police civilians and use force is upheld as constitutional.”

SCAF’s amendments are kind of “one-size-fits-all” contingency, regardless of who wins: the 60-year-old Islamist from the Freedom and Justice Party or the 70-year-old former jet-fighter pilot and one of their own.

Precisely, the generals have drafted the amendments for subordinating the president to military command. The elected president will not assume the role, ex-officio, as supreme commander of the armed forces, for instance. Provision 53 assigns these duties – until such a time when a new constitution is up and running – to SCAF’s president.

The same provision, 53 (1) – the declaration of war, is for all intents and purposes taken away from the president. It stipulates that “the president of the republic declares war after SCAF’s approval”. Perhaps the provision is intended as an assurance to major powers in the event of an Islamist becoming president. A sequel to this provision, 53 (2), says the president can issue a command for the armed forces to help maintain public order and protect vital installations. Again, this is made subject to SCAF’s approval.

Under this provision – the “small print” to scrutinise closely – military officers’ power (thabtiyyah) to police civilians and use force is upheld as constitutional. This does not only speak to last week’s decree by SCAF, but it also represents a veiled threat to all opposition – in anticipation of defiance in the face of its authority and the new provisions to the March constitutional declaration.

The crux of the amendments is not the severe limits placed on the president-elect’s powers, however. More serious, is the expansion of SCAF’s own powers in constitution-framing.

Specifically, Article 60 now empowers SCAF to take charge of the Constituent Assembly (jam’iyyah ta’sisiyyah), should any obstacles stand in the way of its work. In such event, SCAF is given one week to form a new body “representative of all social groups”. The provision states that the new body would be expected to draft the constitution within three months, after which it is to be put to general referendum within two weeks. A month later, the article adds, general elections for parliament would proceed.

SCAF here retroactively panders to original demands by many liberals and secularists who favoured the “constitution first” (al-dustur awwalan) track. However, there is a “coup” now threatened, as the devil is in the detail – and this will not meet with the approval of people such as ElBaradei, among others.

At this rate, Egypt could be without express parliamentary sanction and laws for several months to come. The Lower House was dissolved at the end of last week by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) following a successful challenge to the disqualification law passed by parliament in April and approved by SCAF itself.

This makes SCAF’s influence legislative too. By implication, SCAF fills the power vacuum it elicits or machinates – that of supreme justice. Note, according to Article 56, SCAF replaces the dissolved National Assembly until a new one is re-elected.

Moreover, SCAF assigns itself the role of a “moral arbiter” – in consortium with others, in overseeing the drafting of the constitution and contesting its substance. This is precisely what Article 60 (1) does, by giving the generals power to revise the new constitution in draft, “if the president of the republic or SCAF president or the prime minister or the Supreme Judicial Council, or one-fifth of the Constituent Assembly deem the draft contains a clause or more to contradict with the revolution’s objectives and its basic principles.”

“What is certain is that in the days to come, which may not be in 18 days as happened to Mubarak, and in the months ahead SCAF will not be ignored.”

SCAF seems to be cementing its partnership with the Supreme Constitutional Court, giving it final say in approving the content of contested clauses within seven days in instances where the Constituent Assembly insists on its original text.

SCAF first?

This is a question with diverse meanings. Mubarak first? SCAF first? Mubarak is gone. SCAF to go? It up to people’s Egypt to decide.

To rewind time, before the ousting of Mubarak, Egypt was subject to arbitrary acts of power: intimidation, persecution, torture, imprisonment and murder were routine. The martyrs of the January 25 revolution were the victims of the culmination of the de-humanising routine of the Mubarak regime fighting for its existence. Thugs in uniform and on camel-back slashed and lashed against Egyptians who stood up to the regime in an act of unrelenting defiance.

Three assets have been gained from Egypt’s revolution, and they could prove fatal to SCAF.

First, Egypt now has leaders of all political colours. SCAF may have ignored this detail. What is certain is that, in the days to come (and it may not take as long as 18 days), SCAF will not be left alone ot go about its business.

Second, the fear that was psychologically conditioned by the apparatus of the pre-revolution state, coercive and otherwise, has for ever dissipated like the Egyptian winter morning fog on the streets and squares of resistance. That resistance, when weariness transpires, could come back to haunt SCAF’s cavalier attitude, and animate Egypt’s squares once more.

Last, the integration of Islamists in the political process is now unstoppable, and with all its imperfections, it provides a formidable pole and a bulwark against the deep state.

Today, they may be giving Egypt the taste of their first democratically elected president.

Tomorrow, who knows? An Egypt for all its people – Copt and Muslim, secular and Islamist and man and woman – in which SCAF is a mere footnote in the interval between dictatorship and good government.

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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