With Egypt's presidential election having become a free-for-all, zero-sum game, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) should take a step back and, with the full range of political actors, agree on principles for a genuine and safe political transition.
Lost in Transition: The World according to Egypt's SCAF, the latest report from the International Crisis Group, discusses the performance of the SCAF since it took power after the early 2011 ouster of long-time President Hosni Mubarak. It had several goals: preserve as much as possible from the previous system, restore normalcy, marginalise a protest movement it viewed with considerable suspicion and both work with and contain the Islamists. It did not wish to remain in the spotlight and be blamed for what would go wrong. But it also did not intend to be sidelined, lose its self-ascribed role as guarantor of the country's safety, be stripped of its economic privileges or watch institutions fall in the hands of a single (Islamist) party.
"The trouble is that virtually all the SCAF has been doing since it took power has placed those objectives further out of reach", says Yasser El-Shimy, Crisis Group's Egypt Analyst. "Playing secularists against Islamists and Islamists against secularists has only further alienated both, diminishing the military's leverage and capacity to pursue its goals".
Hailed in the early days of the uprising as its protector, the SCAF finds itself routinely derided by protesters and the independent media as a counter-revolutionary force. Although violence against demonstrators played a major part in exacerbating anti-SCAF sentiments, the military's opaque and high-handed management of the transition was the principal culprit. Large sectors of the public still view it as a symbol of authority and guarantor of stability, but it has lost the confidence and support of virtually all organised political forces, significant segments of the middle class and the urban youth.
For the SCAF, this cannot be welcome news. Nor was it pre-ordained. With strong initial support, and with most political actors hesitant to challenge it, the SCAF could have negotiated a stable transition meeting key objectives: a gradual move toward full civilian control of a non-theocratic state, coupled with acknowledgment of the military's role on defence matters and agreed oversight of its budget and economic activities. Instead, the presidential election risks further inflaming the situation, giving rise to institutional and extra-institutional challenges, jeopardising the transition and settling nothing
The SCAF should do what it was either unwilling or unable to do from the outset: consult broadly and seriously with representatives from the entire political class and reach agreement on key parameters -- the powers of the presidency, the constitutional committee's make-up and the basis of civil-military relations. By clarifying what is at stake in the presidential election and guaranteeing fundamental interests will be protected, such a deal would de-dramatise the contest.
"It might not be too late to craft a compromise that convinces political forces of the depth of political change without intensifying the SCAF's fears", says Robert Malley, Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa Program Director. "It certainly would be preferable to likely alternatives: growing polarisation and chaos; a forceful attempt by the military to retain its position; or the military's humiliating, hasty exit, which could plant the seeds of longer-term instability".