The US should tell the generals that aid will be conditional on a swift handover of power
By Shashank Joshi
The revolution has been cancelled. Everyone go home. It was all a big misunderstanding.
That is the message of Egypt’s military junta who, having hijacked their country’s political future, are turning it into a new Pakistan: a self-destructive and stagnating military dictatorship, limping along in sporadic democratic spurts. It is a squalid and tragic outcome for a country that should have been leading a political renaissance of the Arab world.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the ruling committee of officers, is putting the finishing touches on a slow-motion coup that’s been unfolding since last January’s revolution. For 16 months, SCAF has gone on a rampage of state-sanctioned rape, torture, repression and misrule.
Its members could not stand losing their economic empire, political perks, and status as Egyptian national heroes. But like most armies that think they can govern, they have driven the economy into the ground. They have also made up the rules of Egypt’s so-called transition to democracy as they go along, quashing outcomes they dislike and seizing new powers at will. By now, Egypt should have had a parliament, a constitution and a president. It may end up with none of these.
At the beginning of this year, Egyptians successfully elected a new parliament. Those elections were reasonably free and fair, under the circumstances. Islamists dominated – mostly the moderate but illiberal Muslim Brotherhood, but also the extreme Salafists. That spooked liberals, who insisted on having a bigger say in writing a new constitution.
They needn’t have bothered, because this week, Egyptian judges – themselves remnants of the ancien régime – decided to dissolve parliament on a technicality, doubtless urged on by the top brass. Goodbye, parliament.
It surprised many observers that presidential elections took place on schedule this month. But no one came out of these with much credit, and a large chunk of candidates was disqualified on a whim. Turnout was feeble.
To top it all, the election produced a horribly polarising outcome: a run-off between Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister and a squalid emblem of the old guard, and Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s man.
The generals, naturally, decided that they didn’t fancy this. SCAF brazenly announced sweeping limits on the powers of the new president. Whoever wins, it scarcely matters. They will inherit a shell of an office. They will be able to do nothing without the express consent of the army. An adviser to the military put this point succinctly: “The upcoming president will occupy the office for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees.” Goodbye, presidency.
The revolutionaries have been thrown a few trinkets and baubles. Mubarak, the deposed Egyptian president, was this month sentenced to life in prison for his role in the killing of protesters last year. He is a broken man, and will surely die soon. But his spirit lives on – in the judges who euthanised Egypt’s parliament, and in the army officers who run the show.
True, activists and revolutionaries share some of the blame. They have shunned the hard work of real politics for protest and slogans, ceding the ground to well-drilled Islamists. But there is only so much they could have done in the face of fascist tendencies at the very top.
If you want to see where this is all going, just look to Pakistan. On Tuesday, scarcely days after Egypt’s own judicial coup, Pakistan’s hyperactive supreme court decided that it would disqualify the prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, from holding office.
This is what happens when an army eviscerates national institutions. Pakistan’s army has the same delusions of grandeur and competence as its Egyptian counterpart. Those delusions have torn apart the country. The army and its spies have bribed politicians and rigged elections, tortured journalists and fuelled jihadists, manipulated judges and turned the constitution into toilet paper.
Egypt might have been Turkey – a flawed but booming Islamist-led democracy, which succeeded in putting its coup-prone military back in the box. Instead, with every passing day of this car-crash transition, Egypt heads further in the direction of Pakistan.
There is a warning here for outsiders, too. The United States bears some responsibility for feeding the military monster in Pakistan, over the years in which it preferred to funnel cash and weapons to the army in return for short-term co-operation.
Today, Washington should make a different choice in Egypt. It should tell the generals that the billions of dollars of American aid they receive every year, and the cutting-edge tanks and jets, will be conditional on a swift, meaningful and irreversible handover to elected civilians. That won’t fix everything, but it might buy time for a political process to take hold. The junta will respond by threatening to tear up the peace treaty with Israel, but this bluff has grown old. It should be ignored.
Ultimately, it is for Egyptians to decide whether they take to the streets once more, and risk further and perhaps futile bloodshed, or accommodate to military tutelage. But we (Britain, after all, still sells arms to Egypt) should not be enabling a junta to crush Egypt’s nascent democratic institutions with impunity.
Shashank Joshi is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute
© Copyright of Telegraph Media Group Limited 2012
See online: Army misrule is turning Egypt into Pakistan