When former Vice President (and intelligence chief) Omar Suleiman announced on state television last February 11 the transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), millions of Egyptians began celebrating in the streets the culmination of their revolution that rid them of their dictator. The demonstrators' chant then was "the people and the army are one." Indeed, the role of SCAF in refusing to crack down on protesters and forcing the resignation of Mubarak proved decisive in the three-week revolt.
Nine months later, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are back in Tahrir Square and streets across the country. Ironically, their chant is now "The police and the army are one," in a clear rejection of the violent tactics employed by the police against the demonstrators. In three days of confrontation since November 20 at least 40 people were killed and more than 2,000 injured at the hands of the security forces. But this time the Egyptian youth will not pack up and go home. They are determined to reclaim their revolution and force the transfer of power from the military to a real civilian government.
But how did we get from there to here?
Shortly after Mubarak was deposed, SCAF promised to stay in power no longer than six months. It subsequently called for a popular referendum on March 19 that called for parliamentary elections, followed by writing a new constitution, and then presidential elections. Championed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and other Islamic factions, the public approved the referendum with an overwhelming majority of 77 percent, although secular parties wanted to first draft the constitution for the fear that Islamic parties would have an edge over them after the elections.
During this brief campaign it became clear to all political trends that the Islamically oriented parties, led by the MB, are better organized, well financed, and have the abilities and skills to mobilize the public to their cause. This fact prompted fear and panic not only from the secular, leftist, and liberal parties within Egypt but also from other Western powers led by the United States.
Furthermore, the traditional secular and liberal parties expressed their concern that if the elections were held soon, the Islamists were poised to win a large share of seats and dictate a new constitution that might curtail some freedoms or favor the application of Islamic laws. Despite the pronouncement by most Islamic parties, including the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the MB, that the constitution writing committee would include all political parties and trends, most secular parties did not believe such assurances.
Throughout the summer most secular and liberal parties pressured SCAF to issue a decree that would impose supra-constitutional principles and thus foist them on the future parliament. The opponents of this argued that, on its face, this practice is undemocratic, usurps the rights of the people, and tramples upon their right to express their free will. They also argue that it is unnecessary since all parties have agreed on the nature of the state, namely to be a democratic and civil one.
Nevertheless, the proponents of this approach pushed hard to impose their vision. Consequently, Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Silmi, backed by SCAF, called for a conference of all political parties to approve his plan for the future constitution. But remarkably this document also called for a special constitutional privilege for the military, effectively according it a sovereign status. In effect, it called for its budget to be outside the purview of parliament and for a veto power over any strategic decision by the government. In short, it was similar to the role that the Turkish military played in the country since the military coup of 1960 until Prime Minister Erdogan's Justice and Development Party was elected in 2002.
The rejection of Al-Silmi's proposed document was swift and sweeping, not only in principle by the Islamic parties, but also from other nationalist and secular parties because of its tilt towards the military. It was a disguised effort to keep the military outside the control and supervision of the future democratic institutions of the state.
But this was the latest episode of SCAF's many attempts to manipulate the future course of Egypt. Since the very beginning it has been laggard in implementing the objectives of the revolution. The despised emergency laws were never repealed. While changing the name of the security apparatus, much of its senior personnel and tactics were retained. Over 12,000 civilians were charged and tried swiftly in military trials facing harsh sentences, while the most corrupt leaders of the Mubarak regime -- including the deposed president and his sons -- have been tried grudgingly in slow civilian courts.
Moreover, none of the reforms announced by SCAF came out of its own initiative. It either reluctantly adhered to final court rulings by the judiciary, or yielded to the demands of the people, built up over many weeks, eventually culminating in large demonstrations and sit-ins. To wit:
The sacking of Mubarak's cabinet in favor of a new government supported by the people. The banning of Mubarak's corrupt party and confiscating its assets. The dismissal of thousands of corrupt officials from local councils. The trial of senior leaders and ministers of the deposed regime. The opening of the Rafah crossing to ease the blockade on Gaza. Setting definite election dates after many delays. Changing elections laws to include parties' list as well as individual candidates. Allowing expatriate citizens to vote outside of Egypt. Pointedly, none of these demands, as well as many others, were met without taking the matter to the streets. Often times, their decisions were too little too late, or with ineffective or inconsequential results.
For instance, all political parties have been calling for the activation of a law that bans from politics all individuals who were previously engaged in political corruption -- effectively excluding all Mubarak's Nationalist Democratic Party (NDP) officials. But SCAF dragged its feet for months while hundreds of those same NDP officials filed to contest the elections next week either as independents or as part of the lists of six new parties tied to the old regime. Ultimately, this past Monday, just one week before the elections, SCAF issued the Political Corruption Law that would make it almost impossible to impeach any candidate since they have to be disqualified only through the slow Egyptian judiciary.
Meanwhile, SCAF has been vulnerable to the tremendous pressures applied by foreign governments for different motives. Some Arab governments led by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the U.A.E. used their financial leverage to bail out the deposed president by halting or slowing down his trial because of their strong ties to him. In addition, the U.S. and other Western countries insisted that SCAF give specific assurances regarding Western and Israeli interests, as well as secure certain concessions from the political Islamic parties. For example, under U.S. prodding, SCAF demanded and received assurance from the MB in late April that the group would not contest future presidential elections.
By June, SCAF was demanding that the group not advance one of its own to the position of Prime Minister, even if it won the elections. In August, the MB was told yet again that in any future government it should not push for senior posts such as foreign or interior ministries so as not to antagonize the West. While the group reluctantly agreed not to contest the posts of head of state or government, it was extremely dismayed and refused to adhere to further restrictions on its participation in politics.
Last July, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee earmarked $1.55 billion to Egypt on the condition that such aid should in part be used for "border security programs and activities in the Sinai" in order to insure Israel's security concerns. It also directed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certify the humiliating demand that the Government of Egypt (supposedly democratically elected) "is not controlled by a foreign terrorist organization, or its affiliates or supporters, is implementing the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, and is taking steps to detect and destroy the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza strip." Thus, when the Egyptian authorities acceded in late May to the demand by the Egyptian public to open the Rafah crossing and ease the blockade on Gaza, the crossing was closed again within just three days, due to U.S. and Israeli pressure. The status of the Rafah crossing is not currently very different from the Mubarak era.