Tens of thousands of Egyptians are gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square, angry at events of the past few days and over the likelihood that Hosni Mubarak's last Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, may have just won the presidency.
The votes are still being counted with results expected Thursday. The Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi and Mr. Shafiq have both declared themselves the victor. Who won? Who knows? But what's certain is that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has declared its intention to maintain control of Egypt's politics and its own affairs. The parliamentary election that the Muslim Brotherhood won has been cancelled and the military has appointed itself an interim ruler with sweeping powers, including oversight of the constituent assembly that's supposed to write a new Egyptian constitution. For added turmoil, an Egyptian court is considering outlawing the Brotherhood and its new political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.
For now, the military order that has governed Egypt for 50 years remains in charge, never mind that Mr. Mubarak was pushed from power a year and a half ago.
The power grab in the past week by the Egyptian military and lingering Hosni Mubarak-era establishment, operating through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), is such a blatant attempt to prevent a truly democratic and republican system of government from taking root in the country that it cannot possibly succeed. It will generate tremendous counter forces in society from tens of millions of ordinary and politicized Egyptians, who insist on achieving the promise of the January 2011 revolution that toppled Mubarak, and ushered in a slow transition to a more democratic system of governance... This display of monumental political greed, shortsightedness and sheer stupidity will now send Egypt into a protracted period of political struggle, in which various political forces in the country compete openly for power and legitimacy
There were a lot fewer happy voters joyously waving their ink-stained index fingers than in any of the previous election days. Frankly, this never felt like a finger-waving sort of vote. Welcome to the new, apathetic Egypt. Part of it is voter fatigue, part active boycott, and part a widespread disillusionment at the options. The seemingly endless possibilities unleashed by the revolution had somehow come down to yet another showdown between the unreformed regime and the Muslim Brotherhood... The current constituent assembly now faces an undefined deadline to show progress; otherwise, SCAF will unilaterally form its own assembly. Either way, the generals retain the right to veto any aspects of the proposed constitution that are "in opposition to the goals of the revolution or its basic principles ... or the common principles of Egypt's past constitutions."
The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes --- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.
For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!").... Watterson's game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball's absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin. The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy. Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?
The (Supreme Constitutional Court's) actions today, occurring in the context that they do, reshape Egypt's transition process -- so much so that some Egyptians will likely wonder if they are in any "transition process" at all. That concern is justified. The "process" part was already dead. Now the "transition" part is dying... If the details are unclear, the overall effect is not. What was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion. The rulings themselves are perfectly defensible. The SCC is diverse enough in its composition that it is not anybody's tool...
But that may not matter in the long run. The dispersal of parliament, the sudden constitutional vacuum, the Shafiq surge, the reversion of state-owned media, the revival of a key element of the state of emergency by a decree from an unaccountable justice minister -- all these things point in one direction. Last March I wrote that, "unless the SCAF has the appetite for a second coup, or somehow discovers a way to shoehorn in its puppet as president, the constitutional vehicle that gave the military such political authority will soon turn into a pumpkin." Now it appears that the SCAF has regained its appetite and an old-regime candidate may soon win the presidency.
Cairo-based political analyst Issandr El Amrani, who runs the indispensable Arabist blog, focuses today on US support for Egypt's military rulers, and the fact that the Obama Administration elected earlier this year to keep an over $1 billion military aid package to Egypt flowing on the basis of US national security.
The national security waiver exercised by the Obama administration in March was premature and unwarranted, and now they have egg on their face. Washington can buy itself a few days to figure out what's going to happen in Egypt this week — this is what the recent statements frm the State Dept. being "troubled" by the recent developments amount to but the clock is ticking: they will either have to suspend the aid or be openly in favor of SCAF's constitutional coup if they continue it... More Americans need to care about this, too. I'm not Egyptian, and care mostly about this for American reasons. It's not just that I don't want my tax dollars to subsidize the US defense industry and pampered generals in Cairo. It's also that I don't want the blowback when Egyptians turn to Americans and say, "you supported our dictators". The time has come: the US may not be able to influence developments in Egypt, but at least it can stop underwriting them.
For now, protesters are gathering at Tahrir again, the voters who went to the polls in the parliamentary election have been disenfranchised, and the young revolutionaries who started this process are looking at the prospect of a Mubarak protege taking power, on the one hand, or an Islamist politician that in practice, if not in name, will be a junior partner to the generals. As Kristen Chick reported over the weekend, the chaos of the past year and a deteriorating economy have left many Egyptian's tired, and a little nostalgic, for the stability of the past. But more turmoil looks likely for the near future. SCAF has seen to that.