May 30, 2011

A read into the SCAF's actions

Since 1952, Egypt has been run by the military. By that we don't just mean that it was headed by a president with a military background. The military is involved in more aspects of civilian life than many would imagine. Some estimate that the military runs about 40% of the Egyptian economy in the form of companies, factories, farms and construction companies. We also know that they had a say in permitting (or prohibiting) the use of certain technologies (communication, GPS and others). The determination of the use of any land across the country had to be approved by the military, resulting in some cases in the army reserving some of the most prime plots to its own use. In addition, key positions in the government such as: governors, heads of government influential agencies and presidents of public companies, were given to ex-generals. Moreover, the army has a major role in many of our bilateral relationships with the outside world. In short, the involvement of the army in the decision making in this country stretched far beyond their traditional role of protecting our borders.

In the 5 – 7 years leading up to January 25, Mubarak had largely left the decision making to the NDP headed by Gamal and his cronies. The move was a clear indication to the army that the country was heading towards a civilian rule. The management of the country at that time was split in two, the old guard (including the army) and the new guard (Gamal's group). While the new guard worked on the economic side, the oldies worked on the security aspects, they maintained control over such ministries as Defense, Interior, Foreign Affairs, but also on what they considered security threats such as Ministry of Solidarity, Employment and Education. The separation between the two camps has lead to several cracks and a chaotic government policy. Whereas, such conflict has resulted in the big mess we've witnessed in the past years, it has also prepared the army to a certain extent for an eventual change in its involvement. Needless to say that the army did not like that scenario one little bit, especially that they probably saw that Gamal neither had the strength of character nor the vision that they would've liked to see in an upcoming leader. Several discussions about an eventual coup must have taken place behind closed doors with the option to revert to a military dominance.

The revolution started on January 25th and put the army in an awkward position. On one hand, the end of the Mubarak succession plan came as a relief to them, but on the other hand, the fact that Egyptians took to the streets in millions to change their leader made them realize that reverting back to a strictly military rule was going to be very tricky. At first they tried to wrap it up by making minor cosmetic changes in order to maintain status quo: amending a few clauses in the constitution, removing some of the key figures in the ministries, etc. In doing so, they needed to ensure some popular support: who is more prepared to offer such support than the well organized, 82 year old Muslim Brotherhood? Not only are they the only ones capable of mobilizing large numbers but they are also the ones that, should they be allowed to gain control of the upcoming parliament, would happily draft a constitution that would retain a significant portion of the army's role.

The protests continued beyond the referendum and they soon realized a few things: 1) That there is no turning back from a fully civilian rule, 2) that the MB's are not as reliable as they thought they were, 3) that the country is not as manageable as they believed it was when they took over and 4) that there are far more socio-political forces in the country than just the MB's.

In the meantime and in another parallel universe that we know nothing about, the world was as shocked and confused by the revolution as Mubarak and his gang. A fully democratized Egypt can be many good things but also many threatening things. For Saudi Arabia and Israel to start with, a successful independent Egypt, put their governments' very existence under threat. The US wouldn't mind a democratic Egypt to put some balance into the powers in the region but it doesn't necessarily want it fully independent and autonomous. Getting tired of Israel the US wouldn't mind some pressure to put them back in check but they also don't want Egypt out of control to the extent where it could lead to a military show down. Europe likes the revolution, it likes that Egypt can be a strong player as long as it doesn't turn extremist. They would like to see a democratic Egypt with a strong economy that would secure its southern borders without having to confront the US too much. Each one of those players and others that I have not mentioned (such as Iran) has its own set of cards to pressure change in Egypt in its favor. So, while the army has to figure out what it has to do internally to guarantee a smooth delivery of power to a civilian government while maintaining the whole or part of its strategic role, it also has to deal with the pressures it is facing from abroad. Some of these pressures do not stop at the borders; they actually go all the way into the heart of the country and manifest themselves. Moreover, the events happening in other Arab countries have not really helped the complexity of the situation and have put more expectations / pressures on the army with regards to what cards it holds in facing international pressures.

Meanwhile and in yet a third universe that we know some about, the army has to deal with some serious internal issues. First of all, Mubarak left a complete mess behind him. Not only did he step down after a fundamental civil revolution that left the whole country high on adrenaline, he also left a very complex web of socio-economic problems and an incompetent government to deal with those problems. So, while we expect radical changes, the sort you are supposed to get after a revolution, the size of the mess in our government structure is unfathomable by many. Corruption runs from the very bottom all the way to the very top. Competent honest calibers were methodologically removed from the government over the past three decades resulting in government agencies being incapable of managing any part of the required change: basic statistics are not available or unusable, the chains of command are skewed and unreliable, the resources are completely misallocated and the working culture itself is - to say the least - ineffective. The problem is further complicated by the inherited economic problems that left little to cover for the day-to-day needs not to mention the costs associated with the expected changes. This is not to say that the resources could not be better managed but the government lacks the necessary information and organization to make better use of those resources in such a short time. And in the midst of all this, the instability is causing many investors to shy away from Egypt, both local and international ones, putting even more pressure on the already shaken economy.

On top of that, a network of corrupt government officials, businessmen and politicians that have run the country for the past decades are waging one of the biggest wars to resist any possible change. They are using every possible tool from inciting sectarian tensions, to manipulating their partners in the government, to threatening to expose the military, etc.  acting both individually and in coordination to derail any attempt by the council to take actions against them or to change the status quo. All of that is happening in the middle of a security vacuum, which I often suspect is part of the resistance for change by the same corrupt network. Either way, the absence of the police isn't the only factor contributing to the security mess; the fact that Egyptians have broken their fear of authority is also complicating the matter further and adding yet another dimension to the challenge.

On another hand, the revolution did not only impose a need to reform, it also gave way to a huge number of social and political movements that have yet to be organized. Each one of those movements has its own agenda, its own aspirations and its own views on how to handle the transition period. The demands of those various groups are often conflicting with little room for dialogue. The randomness of the movements (and in some cases the demands) isn't only confusing but makes it difficult to respond properly. That is one of the reasons why the army has maintained such a slow pace; they figured that they should 1) manage expectations and 2) give enough time to be able to read where the movements are heading and to figure out the right moves to appease the majority.

Finally, the army as an institution is anything but revolutionary, not only does it want to maintain status quo, it also neither knows how to nor likes to change. It's interaction with civilian life has always been at the top levels but it never had an interface with the public. They have no clue how to deal with civilians. Especially that according to them, they are managing a transitional period, their focus should be on preparing the country for a civilian government, not to answer to the demands of the revolution neither to make radical changes. Moreover, the time their troops spent in the streets probably lead to some unrest within the lower and middle ranks. This sort of division is not the least tolerated within the army and could pose yet another form of pressure. This could explain the overreaction on April 8th and the immediate withdrawal of the majority of troops from the streets. Another thing to bear in mind is that the council isn't made up of a young and enthusiastic gang, it's made of old generals, who spent the past 40+ years in the military and who know no other language than that of "discipline", whatever that word translates into. Moreover, the members are definitely not in constant agreement on the next steps, as a group they – too - have their own internal conflicts and differences in opinion, which is something they will never admit but can be detected in some of their actions. Possibly the only thing they all agreed on is that they're too proud to accept unconditional civilian advice. Even though, very recently they seem to be slowly accepting that they might need that sort of support after all.

So, basically, after all this I can safely make some assumptions. I know for a fact that the army neither had nor will have any intention to assume power going forward. This is a responsibility they do not want. They realize that there is no turning back from a civilian government and they will honor that transition. Having said that, they - definitely - want to maintain their position (more than their role) or at least redefine it in a way that will guarantee a certain degree of autonomy. The extent of this "independence" is yet to be defined. They also want to reach this exit with the least possible damage, which in some issues will conflict with the demands of the revolution but will be sorted out in its own way.

I also understand that they are having a very tough time managing the country, the various internal and external pressures coupled with the government's crippling inefficiency and their own conservativeness are making it very difficult to sale through this period. Especially when faced with the demands for radical change coming from a multitude of social and political powers that are not necessarily in agreement. I say this in their defense, not because I believe they are doing an outstanding job as much as I believe that the alternatives would be – at best – questionable. Many can probably argue that there were better routes but that's another debate. Either way, they have – of course – been trying to bring the least amount of change in the most amount of time until they left. Which is natural, they have no vision for civilian life and cannot be asked to develop one in such a short time. Could they have used some civilian support? Possibly. But it's neither their nature nor were they able to find a solid civilian institution that can support them going forward. They attempted with a few meetings with the various political figures in the early days that pretty much yielded to nothing. At this stage, I assume they are hoping to develop a civilian discussion through the National Dialogue which doesn't look like it's going anywhere just yet. Nevertheless, the fact that they started such a dialogue indicates that they are not entirely comfortable with the next parliament being fully in charge of the new constitution. That in itself is a reassuring sign that they are not in favor of a constitution monopolized by the MB's. Moreover, if you remember a few weeks ago, the discussion was that the council was going to appoint the committee to write the constitution, the switch to a national dialogue only shows that they are trying to put in place a more transparent process.

There are – of course – some major mistakes in the process and the opacity isn't really helping. But some of those mistakes need to be interpreted from a wider perspective, such as military trials and the censorship on the media. Both are wrong. But the army thinks that these are exceptional times and they require exceptional measures. Not that they are true believers in freedom of speech but they can see the revolt against them and yet don't see how they can guarantee some sort of stability if crime is not cracked down upon and if the media can continue to cause internal pressure by criticizing them. Old style? Absolutely, but it is what it is.

The process could've – definitely - been handled better, but I don't see that a civilian alternative was readily available and in my assessment, mistakes were made due to various pressures and incompetence than because of complicity. Their focus from day one has been the transition to a civilian government; all the actions they initiated were related to the election process (such as the referendum and issuing the election law). With regards to the demands of the revolution, they still believe that it's the responsibility of the elected government, not theirs and they will continue to maintain a mostly reactionary stance.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis of the situation. I would only add that what we refer to as the "revolution" was in reality a popular revolt which led to a military coup. The military saw an opportunity to once and for all put an end to Mubarak's succession plan and stepped in as a saviour of the people's demands - in reality these plans, meshed very well with their own agenda. The revolt gave them the perfect cover for a coup.