America’s Egypt Quandary

With the seating of a new Egyptian president, it is tempting to focus on the forward momentum of that country’s transition and an imminent return to civilian rule. Indeed, over much of the past year, Washington has banked on the idea that the military council ruling the country since Mubarak’s ouster is eager to relinquish power sooner rather than later. Its mishandling of key aspects of the transition were largely dismissed as amateurish bungling by soldiers unaccustomed to wielding executive authority. But in the drama leading up to the presidential runoff, there were plenty of signs suggesting that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not going away anytime soon, even if — as they claim — power will be handed over to the new president by the end of this month.

Over the past fortnight the SCAF has presided over the dissolution of the country’s only popularly elected institution, the National Assembly, and reclaimed the legislative mandate for itself. It has also stipulated significant limits to the powers of the newly-elected president and assumed new security powers that rekindle aspects of the draconian Emergency Law that permitted Mubarak to curtail expressions of political opposition for so long. And the revised sequence for the political transition, in which legislative elections will not be held until a new constitution is in place, means that Egyptians will go without an independent, popularly elected political institution for the foreseeable future.

SCAF-skeptics have decried these recent actions as tantamount to a military coup. And they dismiss the presidential succession as all smoke and mirrors on the part of the military: the advent of an executive associated with the revolution provides the illusion of forward progress — and draws scrutiny away from the military — even as the SCAF takes measures to ensure that, at least for the time being, ultimate authority with respect to Egypt’s finances and security remain firmly in its grip. At the very least it is clear that the generals — faced with the prospect of a parliament and presidency dominated by Islamists — felt the need to make a clear statement to the effect that they remain in charge. But as with their actions at previous critical junctures in the transition, this one too looks to be an overstatement. There is also a good prospect that these moves will establish the SCAF as the shared enemy of political forces that heretofore have tended to focus on their differences.

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