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Lost in Transition: The World According to Egypt’s SCAF
Lost in Transition: The World According to Egypt’s SCAF
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Lost in Transition: The World According to Egypt’s SCAF

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.

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Executive Summary

Since it assumed power after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, the performance of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been, at times, head-scratching. Extolled in the wake of the uprising as the revolution’s protector, many have come to view it as an agent of the counter-revo­lu­tion. It often has been obstinate, before abruptly yielding to pressure. It values its long ties with Washington, from which it receives much assistance, but seemed willing to jeopardise them by targeting U.S.-funded NGOs. Suspected by Islamists of seeking to deprive them of opportunity to govern and by non-Islamists of entering a secret pact with the Muslim Brotherhood, it finds itself in the worst of both worlds: an angry tug-of-war with liberal protesters and a high-wire contest with Islamists. It displays little interest in governing, wishing instead to protect privileges, but erratic behaviour threatens even that. On the eve of presidential elections that have become a high-stakes free-for-all, the SCAF should take a step back and, with the full range of political actors, agree on principles for a genuine and safe political transition.

What has the SCAF been thinking? Understanding the Egyptian military’s mindset is difficult and requires modesty in reaching conclusions. At the core of the SCAF’s outlook is the conviction that its principal complaints against the Mubarak regime – the slide toward hereditary government; the excesses of neoliberal policies; ostentatious corruption by networks associated with the president’s family – faithfully reflected the public’s. Once it had ousted the president, it follows, it felt it had accomplished the revolution’s goals. As a corollary, the SCAF was and is inclined to view any who continued to protest after Muba­rak’s fall as serving either their own narrow self-interests or, worse, those of foreign powers (read: the U.S.) aiming to weaken and fragment a proud Arab nation. No doubt, the latter notion has been a tool used by the SCAF to discredit its critics; but it would be a mistake to see it as that alone, for it is also a deeply-held belief within the military.

As a corollary to the corollary, the SCAF considers itself the sole actor possessing the experience, maturity and wisdom necessary to protect the country from domestic and external threats. In contrast, virtually all political parties are regarded with scorn, self-centred in their demands, narrow-minded in their behaviour. The Muslim Brotherhood stands as an exception of sorts, treated by the military with guarded respect. But it is a respect born of the long-term, hard-fought battle waged against an outlawed organisation that faced decades of persecution. Because the Brotherhood represents the only organised political force with which it must contend, the SCAF has treated it seriously – which does not mean sympathetically.

The interests the SCAF wishes to defend are a mix of the national and more parochial, but insofar as the military is persuaded it alone can protect Egypt, it has a tendency to conflate its well-being with that of the country. With the spread of internal insecurity, volatility in the Sinai and uncertainty in Libya and Sudan, it hardly sees this as a time to trust untested civilians. But it also hardly sees this as a time for others to challenge its privileged status – such as a secret budget sheltered from civilian oversight; de facto immunity from prosecution; and vast business ventures that affect key sectors of the economy. It almost certainly has no wish to remain in the political spotlight, governing the nation and thus blamed for what inevitably will be a taxing period of social and economic distress. But nor does it intend to be sidelined, lose its self-ascribed role as guarantor of constitutional legitimacy, be stripped of its economic privileges or see political institutions in the hands of a single (Islamist) party. Its objective is to stay in the background yet remain an arbitrator; and shun the limelight even as it retains decisive influence.

The trouble is that virtually all the SCAF has been doing and that has occurred since it took power has placed that objective further out of reach. Playing secularists against Islamists and Islamists against secularists alienated both. After a period of at least implicit understanding, the two leading forces – the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood – appear locked in a zero-sum game. The degree of uncertainty is striking. Egyptians elected a parliament and are scheduled to choose a president without enjoying either well-defined or commonly accepted powers. The committee due to oversee the drafting of a new constitution, which already had lost much of its credibility, has been suspended by court order. The issue of civil-military relations, at the centre of controversy both before and after the uprising, remains open. Of greatest concern, perhaps, is the risk the transitional process, despite having checked all the boxes (parliamentary and presidential elections and a new constitution), will end up doing so in ways that undermine the new institutions’ legitimacy, yield an unstable political system and fail to resolve any of Egypt’s many questions.

From the SCAF’s perspective, this cannot be welcome news. Its goal, from the outset, was to preserve what it could from the previous system for the sake of continuity, restore normalcy, marginalise a protest movement it viewed with considerable suspicion as well as both work with and contain the Islamists. Not only are the odds for success declining by the day; in the process, it also increasingly is alienating a range of political forces while diminishing its leverage and capacity to pursue its goals.

Given growing political polarisation, the presidential election has become pivotal. Fearing that the military would impose a strong presidential system, void parliament of real influence and thus rob it of its historical opportunity to govern, the Muslim Brotherhood has thrown its weight into this race, reneging on its repeated pledge not to do so. Remnants of the old regime sought to respond in kind. The presidential electoral commission has thrown out some of the highest-profile candidates – from the former regime; from the Brotherhood; and from the Salafi movement – but that has done little to mollify passions, as both Islamists and non-Islamists, suspecting a regime attempt to shape the electoral outcome, are renewing their protests.

The election may well be the SCAF’s last chance to peacefully produce a “balanced” political system, reflecting the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary supremacy, yet also protecting interests critical to the military. Should Egyptians elect an Islamist without a prior understanding between the political forces and the military, the SCAF could well find itself at once powerful and helpless, unable to influence the process save by unconstitutional – and highly risky – moves. The prospect of renewed, widespread confrontation and an abrupt halt to the transitional process, once remote, no longer is unthinkable. The end result could be a presidential election that further inflames the situation, gives rise to institutional and extra-insti­tu­tional challenges, jeopardises the transition and settles nothing.

Neither the SCAF nor the Muslim Brotherhood wanted it to come to this. For the two, the clash is premature. Both would have benefited from a compromise agreement, safeguarding essential military prerogatives while setting the country on a clear path toward full civilian rule, allowing the Islamists to govern but ensuring it happens gradually and inclusively, consistent with the Brotherhood’s own fear of grabbing too much too soon. But, because the transition increasingly has taken on a winner-take-all quality, neither appears to feel it has a choice.

It is not too late. What is urgently needed is what the SCAF 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 of a future political system – the powers of the presidency, the constitutional committee’s make-up and the basis of civil-military relations. By clarifying what precisely is at stake in the presidential elections, defining checks and balances and ensuring that fundamental guarantees can protect various interests at play, such a deal would de-dramatise the contest. It would make it less of an uncontrollable existential exercise – and more of a manageable political one.

Cairo/Brussels, 24 April 2012

A member of the Libyan army's special forces holds a RPG during clashes with Islamist militants in their last stronghold in Benghazi, Libya, on 6 July 2017. REUTERS/Esam Omran Al-Fetori

Tackling the MENA Region’s Intersecting Conflicts

How can the dizzying changes, intersecting crises and multiplying conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa since the 2011 Arab uprisings be best understood, let alone responded to? This long-form commentary by MENA Program Director Joost Hiltermann and our team steps back for a better look and proposes new approaches.

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Principal Findings

What's new?  Since the 2011 Arab uprisings, conflicts of divergent origins across the Middle East have intersected and metastasised. This has drawn in regional and international powers, poisoning relations between them, creating more local conflict actors and greatly complicating the task of policymakers to respond effectively.

Why does it matter?  Policy responses that treat conflicts in isolation and ignore their root causes may end up doing more harm than good. Stabilising war-torn states or de-escalating crises requires an understanding of the interconnectedness and the deeper drivers of regional conflicts.

What should be done?  A new methodology is required to effectively address the Middle East’s post-2011 conflicts. Two analytical concepts – conflict clusters and concentric circles – can help policymakers disentangle the region’s conflicts, provide greater clarity in diagnosis and accompany a simple principle that should underpin all approaches: first, do no harm.

Overview: A New Way of Looking at MENA Conflicts

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) does not lend itself to quick analysis. Post-2011 events, occurring at dizzying speed and full of apparent contradictions, compound the problem. Widening and increasingly intersecting conflicts are having a deleterious impact on the region’s social fabric and its people. As a result, what happens in the region is no longer confined to it: radiating crises have started to infect relations between regional and global powers, forcing policymakers in world capitals to respond in pursuit of their nations’ strategic interests. The challenge is to untangle the knot of conflicts analytically: to understand how various historical strands have interacted to create the bewildering composite of conflict drivers and actors that pose myriad threats to local, regional and even global stability and then to articulate policy responses that chart paths toward de-escalation and, eventually, more sustainable arrangements for states’ and communities’ peaceful coexistence. Most importantly, they should not make matters worse.

Grasping the roots and primary characteristics of the region’s swift-changing complexion requires a new way of looking at it. We can no longer simply study conflicts in isolation, such as the Israeli-Arab conflict. This remains important, but we need to add new dimensions: how a single conflict has yielded secondary conflicts to form conflict “clusters”; how conflicts within a cluster have started to bleed into conflicts in another cluster; and how individual conflicts in the MENA region have broadened to suck in, first, regional powers and, then, global actors as a result of power and security vacuums created in the chaos of war.

The Arab-Israeli conflict, for example, which dates from Western powers’ decision a century ago to support the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East (first enunciated in the Balfour Declaration), has sprung the confines of the territory known as Israel and Palestine to cover new terrain, in particular Lebanon, and sprout new conflict actors, such as Hizbollah. Today, Hizbollah participates in the Syrian civil war, which has roots outside the Israel-Arab conflict, and is allied with Iran, whose ascendancy in the region following the failed 2011 popular uprisings has provoked destabilising responses from Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, especially in Yemen. Meanwhile, these same states are projecting influence in North Africa to prevail in what was originally a separate struggle between competing political expressions of Sunni Islamism, involving the Muslim Brotherhood. To make matters worse, the suppurating Syrian and Yemeni wars have infected global powers such as Russia and the U.S., who are deploying their tremendous weight on behalf of one side but are so far unable to do so decisively and forge durable settlements.

Policy responses directed toward individual events in individual conflicts – say, the Libyan migrant crisis, or the rise of jihadists in Syria –may end up doing more harm than good. Not only because such policies tend to be rushed and overly securitised, but also because they ignore the deeper drivers behind these individual events, thereby aggravating them. External military support of certain Kurdish parties in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is a good example: it boosted Kurdish hopes of outside support for their longstanding aspiration for greater autonomy, even independence. They chose to become outside powers’ willing proxies to advance their own agendas. This, in turn, gave rise to new and additional crises instead of lowering regional tensions.

A new methodology is needed to address these post-2011 conflicts through both analysis and policy. The risk of pursuing policies that do further harm has increased, especially as conflicts of different origins metastasise and intersect, creating a new generation of non-state conflict actors and drawing in both regional and global powers. I propose two analytical concepts to help bring greater clarity, one new, the other old: conflict clusters and concentric circles. I then explore how these interact with external interventions of various sorts.

Instead of policy prescriptions for individual conflicts, I place the perplexing array of intersecting MENA conflicts and conflict actors in a framework that elucidates what motivates these actors and what drives their conflicts. And I will suggest a set of principles that should undergird any approach by global and regional powers toward these conflicts, based on the need to contain the current situation without making matters worse. This study is based on years of field research in the MENA region by me and my colleagues at the International Crisis Group.[fn]All references to “interviews” concern interviews done by either me or my Crisis Group colleagues.Hide Footnote

Joost Hiltermann, the lead contributor to this paper, would like to thank the following for providing essential background research: Crisis Group consultants Dimitar Bechev, Ali Fathollah-Nejad and Sebastian Sons, and Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Israel/Palestine Ofer Zalzberg; also, many thanks are due to Crisis Group’s entire MENA team for providing insights and data, and for reviewing the results, for which the lead contributor remains wholly and solely responsible.

To read the full 47-page text, please open the PDF.