In Egypt, the army wins. Again.

Egypt's presidential election Sunday was supposed to be the culmination of a transition to democracy. Instead, the military junta made it clear it has no interest in a truly democratic transition.

Asmaa Waguih/REUTERS
Policemen close the gate of the Parliament building to prevent members of the recently scrapped Parliament from entering the building in Cairo June 19. The military reclaimed legislative power following a court ruling dissolving the Islamist-led parliament.

In campaigns abroad, victories for Egypt's military are few and far between.

There was the loss of more than 20,000 men in the country's ill-fated intervention in Yemen in the early '60s, the humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel, and the October 1973 offensive against Israel in the Sinai that ended in a draw.

But on the field of political battle at home, Egypt’s military reigned supreme, at least since the 1952 Free Officers coup that ended Egypt's monarchy and placed Gamel Abdel Nasser in the presidency. When he died, Free Officer Anwar Sadat succeeded him. And after Islamist gunmen murdered Mr. Sadat in 1981 in part over the peace deal he'd signed with Israel the previous year to secure the return of the Sinai Peninsula, Air Force Gen. Hosni Mubarak succeeded him.

Now, the votes are being counted from Egypt's first-ever free presidential election. Results are expected Thursday. Ahmed Shafiq is a retired officer and long-time confidante of Mr. Mubarak's, putting him very much in the mold of Egypt's leaders for the past 60 years. A victory for Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, would be something else again: a real break from the past with a leader hostile to the military's position as a state within a state. 

Is it an exciting race, with two extremely different candidates tussling to shape Egypt's future? No, at least, not anymore.

On the eve of polls opening last Saturday, the military junta that has ruled Egypt for the past 18 months took all the air out of the proceedings by decreeing itself Egypt's real power. This was only a formalization of a long-standing state of affairs, but it removed the pretense that Egypt is in the middle of a transition to full civilian rule, overseen by a benevolent military eager to get back to barracks. If Mr. Morsi wins, his hands will be completely tied. If Mr. Shafiq wins; welcome to Mubarak 2.0.

What happened to the ‘transition’?

What did they do? The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, decreed that the military should govern its own affairs and effectively gave itself a veto over new legislation and the writing of a new constitution.

Who gets to appoint Egypt's senior officers? Egypt's current senior officers.

Who has the power to declare war? Egypt's senior officers.

Who will the constituent assembly tasked with drafting a new Egyptian constitution answer to? Egypt's senior officers.

Nathan Brown, a leading scholar of Egyptian politics, writes "the supplementary constitutional declaration really does complete the coup in many obvious ways – basically returning martial law (in its more original sense rather than the 'state of emergency' that just expired), making the military unaccountable, and grabbing back oversight of the political system for the military just weeks before the scheduled end of military rule."

The weekend decree was the coup de gras for Egypt's "transition," if that was understood as a process designed to align Egypt's affairs with a dramatically more democratic direction. Perhaps it was naive to think the results could be different. After all, the military has been driving the transitional bus all along. The millions of Egyptians who took to the streets last year, in a collective national howl of outrage that could be summed up as "we're not going to take it anymore," precipitated Mubarak's departure – but were not the proximate cause.

The decision to oust Mubarak

That decision came when the military decided it had too much to lose by violently putting down the swirling protests and much to gain by simply jettisoning the aging Mubarak who, at any rate, had left many senior officers uneasy with his maneuverings throughout the past decade to set up his son Gamal, a Western-educated banker with no military experience, for the throne. At the key moment, it was the military's decision to make. Just as now.

Earlier this month, a group of Mubarak-appointed judges beholden to SCAF dissolved the Egyptian parliament elected at the start of this year, essentially telling the 30 million Egyptians who went to the polls amid so much hope in December and January that their voices don't matter. Hardly surprising then, that turnout for the presidential election fell substantially.

The Brotherhood had been the big winner at the ballot box, with about 50 percent of parliament. Now, it's hoping to win a presidency that in many ways will be subordinate to the military. Democratic legitimacy for the process has been removed. 

Rolling back concessions

And the junta has been steadily rolling back the concessions of the past year. Striking Egypt's hated emergency law, which allows for the indefinite detention of political activists and others deemed a threat to the state, was one of the top demands of the activists who led the uprising against Mubarak. And at the end of May, the law that had been in force since Sadat's assassination in '81, was finally allowed to lapse. A gain of the revolution? It seemed so.

But last week, the military restored to itself sweeping powers to arrest and hold civilians. The emergency law had returned under another name less than two weeks after it had gone away. 

To be sure, the military says that all its new powers are "temporary" and "transitional," to be replaced when a new constitution is written, when a new parliament is elected, and after yet another presidential election (a military spokesman said yesterday that the president Egypt elected over the weekend will only be allowed to serve for a few months, until a constitution is written). But every military move over the past 18 months has been in the direction of greater power for the generals, not less power. History indicates that the longer a junta remains in power, the more difficult it is to remove it from power. 

Many respected scholars who study Egypt have urged that Egypt's ruling generals not be seen as a group of evil geniuses, brilliantly playing their post-uprising cards into a position of maximum power. Rather, the junta has a set of general principals and a lot of power, but no master plan, stumbling along from one ad hoc decision to another.

Perhaps. But the cumulative effect of their decisions is clear. The Egyptian military – handsomely supported by the US for decades – remains in the driver seat.

The original version of this story incorrectly stated the date of the Free Officer's coup.

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