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Roundtable on Post-Mubarak Egypt: Authoritarianism without Autocrats? (Part VI: El-Menshawy)

[Image from unknown archive] [Image from unknown archive]

 [This is the sixth of seven posts associated with a Jadaliyya electronic roundtable on the future of Egypt. Click here to access the full roundtable. Participants include: Issandr Al-Amrani, Zeinab Abul-Magd, Nathan J. Brown, Jason Brownlee, Daniel Brumberg, Mohamed El-Menshawy, and Samer Shehata. A description of the roundtable can be found here. For the previous post click here.]

SCAF Cannot Defeat the Square

Brownlee’s assessment of SCAF’s role coincides with growing public skepticism of its leadership in Egypt, which has become more widespread and visible in the past weeks. For example, when I visited Cairo last April and participated in the “Friday of Cleansing,” many protesters told me they were frustrated with the SCAF’s failure to respond to the revolution’s demands, yet direct criticism of the Council remained very minimal. On July 8, or the “Friday of Determination”, I had completely different experience at Tahrir Square where I spent several hours talking to protesters and listening to speeches by various political figures. The SCAF was the main target of criticism by several groups and protesters openly called for the removal of Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Many people accused SCAF of manipulating, if not fighting against, the popular revolution.  One member of the Revolution Youth Coalition told me “SCAF still doesn’t get it. It’s a full revolution! We do not need partial solutions nor passing our demands to the next elected president and government. They should understand the uniqueness of this period of Egypt’s history and not try to run Egypt as ‘business as usual.’” Another activist remarked, “This was not a revolution only against Mubarak and his family. It was against the entire regime”.

This month witnessed two notable developments that cast further doubt on SCAF’s self-proclaimed democratic commitments. The first is the appointment of Osama Haikal as minister of information, which many consider a set back for freedom of the press in Egypt as it signals SCAF’s interest in keeping the Ministry (and its control over freedom of information) intact. The second is a front-page photo in newspapers showing Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister sitting along side Field Marshall Tantawi and SCAF’s Vice President General Sami Enan at the graduation ceremony of the Air Force Academy.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s decision to take part only in the July 8th protest and not to participate alongside other groups in the subsequent “sit-in” organized in Tahrir Square is very telling. While on the one hand, it demonstrates the Brotherhood’s muscle and capacity to rally supporters, it stands as yet another proof that the Brotherhood is the only group that the SCAF could rely on to balance against the demands of liberal and leftist political forces.

That being said, while SCAF would like to see the scope of this transition contained, the Council faces limited options and none of them is to reconstitute or reinvent Egypt’s authoritarian past. The persistence of widespread popular protests and demonstrations, coupled with unprecedented level of public scrutiny of government, makes this an impossible task. Egypt is witnessing for the fist time in its history a direct media scrutiny of its leaders. Head of SCAF Field Marshall Tantawi is often criticized by name in mainstream media outlets and public discussions. An authoritarian resurgence is simply unfeasible, whether the SCAF likes it or not.

This is to say that authoritarian as we experienced it under Mubarak will likely be a thing of the past. At the same time, it is unrealistic to expect it to completely disappear in a matter of a few years or after a single round of elections. In fact, the next election, although will certainly fall short of bringing Egypt back to Mubarak-style authoritarianism, will likely reinforce the power of forces that dominated politics under Mubarak, including the Muslim Brotherhood, ex-NDP allies and traditional local forces.

Thus, the realization of the goals of this revolution is subject to a long marathon and not a short sprint. The challenges ahead are many and, as Brownlee remarked, are not limited to the electoral or constitutional sphere. For example, SCAF often says it is committed to handing over power to an elected civilian president early next year. It is likely, however, that the Council will adopt a policy of “All but the Army,” in managing its relations with the next president and parliament, seeking to keep the military’s budget and economic interests beyond the reach and oversight of elected officials. This will probably open up a long conflict over civilian control of military institutions, the outcome of which remains uncertain. Beyond the military, it is also expected that other Egyptian bureaucracies—not just the Ministry of Interior—will strongly resist efforts to introduce greater accountability and transparency to the Egyptian government.

The challenges ahead are numerous, but it is hard to argue that a return to an authoritarian status quo is one of them.

NEXT: Zeinab Abul-Magd brings in the economy back in…

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