In massive demonstrations of roughly 100,000 over each of the past three nights, Egyptians took to the streets. Demonstrations have become a regular feature of political life since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, but most of them these days number around 1-2,000. When numbers like this take to the streets, emotionally-loaded developments are usually a key cause.
So what caused this latest round of demonstrations? In the next two posts, I will try to answer this question by looking at two sides of the story. In Part One (today), I will try to summarize the political-legal wrangling taking place between Parliament, Army, Judiciary, and the (as of yet unnamed) President. In Part Two (tomorrow) we will look at the coalition-building taking place between the Muslim Brotherhood, young liberals, and supporters of a more radical fundamentalist interpretation of Islam in politics. Both sides together account for the story of these stunning developments.
Part One: The Political Developments of the Past Week
The last time I wrote, on June 12, the big issue was the looming decisions by the Supreme Court, on whether Ahmad Shafiq would be allowed to run for President and whether the Parliamentary elections were constitutional. Since then, the military has expanded the powers of their internal security forces, the Court decisions have come down, Parliament has been dissolved, Presidential elections have been held, and both sides have claimed victory. (The announcement of the winner has now been delayed.) If you don’t appreciate drama, Egypt is not the country for you.
On June 13, Justice Minister Adel Abdel Hamid Abdallah announced that military police and intelligence officers are now granted the same rights as judicial police when dealing with certain domestic crimes that normally fall outside of their jurisdiction. The text itself is highly legalistic, but analysis by a range of experts at “Egypt Independent” concludes that the order gives military police expanded rights to arrest and investigate civilians in violation of the criminal code. It is unclear whether those arrested under the law would be referred to military courts or to the attorney general’s office, as are most criminal cases. (Amnesty International has issued a statement strongly against the order.)
The next day, June 14th, the Supreme Court met to decide on the legality of the Parliamentary elections, which took place in three stages from January-March 2012. The laws governing the Parliamentary elections were passed by official decree (made by the cadre of military officers that acted as executive and legislative authorities after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011) in September of 2011 (i.e. two months before the elections began). Part of the new law reserved 1/3 of the seats in Parliament for independent candidates.
The major parties scrambled to interpret the new law, and one narrative which emerged was that remnants of the former regime’s dissolved National Democratic Party were trying to get in through the back door. Parties mobilized, and in a last-minute deal established a two-ballot system for the elections, one for parties and one for independents.
The fervor against the remnants of the old regime provided a cover for umbrella organizations with attached political parties, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to run candidates on the independent ticket. This led independents to challenge the umbrella organizations in court, arguing that the actions had subverted the intent of the law. The court ruled in favor of the independents on June 14. The next day SCAF ordered parliament to close its doors and blocked the entrance to the building with military personnel.
Amidst all of this, voting started for the final round of Egypt’s Presidential elections on June 16th. Things were relatively quiet and the military stepped up its presence in the city for security. Tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers paraded around the streets, passing out fliers congratulating the Egyptian people on the revolution and the elections. Posters with an image of a soldier carrying a baby and the slogan “the army and the people are one hand” are displayed in select high-traffic locations throughout the city. During the voting, helicopters flew by overhead for two days. (In the days since the election, reports have surfaced that the Army has deployed a contingent near the major highway between Cairo and Alexandria.) As vote counts started to come in from abroad and domestic tallies, Mursi seemed to be the winner by a slim margin, around 2.5%.
On June 18th, the day after polls closed, and two days before the scheduled announcement for the Presidency, the SCAF issued a constitutional declaration which transfered the legislative powers of the dissolved Parliament to the SCAF until a new constitution can be drafted; assigned the current head of the SCAF as commander-and-chief of the Armed Forces (instead of the President); made the Defense Minister an Army-appointee (instead of a Presidential-appointee); gave the SCAF the authority to construct a Constituent Assembly to draft a constitution if the current Assembly is impeded from doing so; And gave a veto over provisions of the future constitution to the president, the head of SCAF, the prime minister, the Supreme Council of the Judiciary or a fifth of the constituent assembly.
The next day, demonstrations began. The following day, June 20th, SCAF issued a declaration delaying the announcement of the winner of the Presidential vote until as late as Sunday. The official reason for the delay is the 400 or so complaints that have ben filed by the Shafiq campaign. But in a country of 80+ million, when the margin of victory was at least 1,000,000 votes, I don’t see how 400 complaints can make a substantial difference.
Analyzing the Political Developments
The situation is moving at a fast pace, and many of the sharpest minds writing about Egypt have been keeping up. Professor Nathan Brown has a detailed article on the developments, breaking them down in terms of their effects on the prominent institutions in Egypt. He says these developments have “constitutionalized a military coup.” William Dobson of the Financial Times reminds us that it is difficult label a situation in which the military has consistently been in charge a “coup d’etat.” Professor Juan Cole provides solid analysis, and offers a representative example of a move I have increasingly seen by many pundits who attempt to make sense of the Egyptian case by looking at other examples of states in Southwest Asia that have a strong military which has at times subordinated the civilian government (like Turkey and Pakistan). The Economist also breaks things down, if somewhat sensationally.
But, as a big fan of Calvin and Hobbes, I think the best metaphor has come from Marc Lynch (who runs the Abu Aardvark blog) in his article in Foreign Policy, “Calvinball in Cairo.” The reference is to the game played in Bill Watterson’s popular cartoon series, where the main character makes up the rules as he goes along.
The calvinball analogy can do a lot to help explain what has been going on in Cairo. Whereas the military once had executive but not legislative power, now it will relinquish executive authority to the incoming President, but has added legislative power to its portfolio. Moreover, the SCAF has retained for itself certain key elements of the executive power it has enjoyed since February, including full autonomy over the armed forces and the right to choose a Defense Minister. SCAF has also stepped up its role in the constitution-drafting process, with the right to form a new Constituent Assembly if the current one cannot complete its work and reserving a veto over the entire process.
But besides the question of what, I am interested in the question of why. What is most evident from these last-second moves by the Army seems to be that the elections really were “free and fair” (even if many chose to boycott). If the Army wanted to stack the deck with their candidate, they could have resorted to fraudulent tactics to do so. Instead, when it looked as if Mursi would win, they changed the rules at the 11th hour with the constitutional declaration. That the delay of the announcement of the President came the day after the MB lead massive demonstrations cannot be a coincidence. There is surely some horse-trading going on behind the scenes between the MB and the SCAF.
In Part Two, I will tackle the question of how the Muslim Brotherhood has used recent development to re-code itself as the guardian of Egypt’s nascent democratic revolution. The gatherings in the streets today have a very different character than the gatherings of the past month, and diving into this differences will help us see the other side of the story, shifting the scene from the hallowed halls of Egypt’s venerable institutions, to the crowded streets of Tahrir Square.