SCAF: Retreating to the Barracks
Published Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Alexandria, Egypt - “Down, down, with military rule” was the slogan chanted repeatedly by thousands of Egyptians throughout the transitional period as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) sought to assert its control over the running of the country.
But questions remain over the extent to which military rule has really been brought to an end by President Mohammed Mursi’s decision to replace most of the country’s top military commanders and annul the Supplementary Constitutional Declaration through which the SCAF gave itself sweeping powers.
Muhammad Saffar, head of Cairo’s University’s cultural studies department, sees Mursi’s move as an important step toward ending the dominant role the army has played in Egypt since 1952. But the military will still press for its interests to be upheld, and expect to have its say in things like the defense budget and decisions about war, as armies do in all democracies. However, in Egypt those interests extend to preserving the military’s economic interests and institutions, and ensuring that its members avoid prosecution for past involvement in torture or killings.
Saffar argues that the Egyptian military establishment does not aspire to run the country. That is too much of a burden on its officers, who are unqualified for such a role, as the army and its serving personnel were excluded from political life under the rule of Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, who established separate institutions for them. That much was made clear by the military’s inept handling of the transitional period.
By acting as he did, Mursi scratched any idea of military-civilian power-sharing, and placed power firmly in the hands of the country’s nascent elected political authority, which is still in the process of formation. The SCAF’s role in government is thus over, although it will continue to defend its interests, and compromises will still have to be made with it.
Cairo University political science professor Ahmad Abed-Rabbo says that while Mursi’s move was important, it remains insufficient. “It may have taken the SCAF out of the big political equation and reduced its formal role in policy-making, and removed some of its top leaders. But it did not affect the lower levels and executive agencies, either at the level of provincial governors or local administrations. So it still cannot be said that the military establishment and military officers are no longer able to interfere in politics,” he says.
“When the army’s role is confined to defending the state; When military officers are removed from their posts as provincial governors, public administrators or heads of sports unions; When the military establishment’s economic activities are reviewed and brought within the state rather than being a separate system; When that happens, we will be able to say that the military has been taken out of political life,” he says.
Alexandria University political science professor Abdel-Fattah Madi identifies military appointments and promotions and the military’s extensive economic activities as key issues that yet need to brought under civilian control. Until that happens, the army will remain quasi-independent of elected institutions such as parliament and the presidency, enabling it to retain much of its bargaining-power and ability to exert behind-the-scenes influence on political life.
Madi argues the military’s powers need to be clawed back gradually and non-confrontationally, via a series of compromises, as it is vital to preserve the army’s cohesion without compromising the civilian nature of the state. Transforming the army into an institution that is solely concerned with national security and defers to elected politicians is one of the biggest challenges Egypt’s hoped-for democratic transition faces, he says.
From a legal point of view, Mursi’s scrapping of the Supplementary Constitutional Declaration corrected a legal anomaly, says Fikri Kharroub, former head of the Alexandria Judges’ Club. The Supplementary Constitutional Declaration was legally invalid, he says, as it sought to perpetuate and expand the powers assumed by the SCAF in the exceptional circumstances prevailing immediately after the revolution. Those powers should have been invalidated anyway once the now-dismissed elected parliament was in place. Mursi has thus acted to confine the SCAF to its proper role of protecting the homeland’s borders, he says.
But legality is not necessarily an important factor, points out Muhammad al-Arabi, an analyst with the Future Research Institute at the Alexandria Library. He notes that no special status was accorded to the military in the 1971 constitution, under which Egypt was governed until the revolution. But it enjoyed an “unwritten special status, reflected in the rewarding of retiring officers with state jobs, not to mention an undefined budget, independent activities, tax exemptions, and many other things which turned it into a quasi-independent force.”
Arabi concedes that many activists have applauded Mursi’s action, but he predicts that they will find themselves having to continue to demand the military’s ouster from power.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.