Egypt’s Judges and Generals Dissolve the Parliament: Is the Revolution Now Over?

Confident that raw power and divisions among the opposition preclude any serious challenge, the junta turns the tables on a democratic transition

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

A protester shouts from atop a barricade outside the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo on June 14, 2012

The coup d’état that began 18 months ago in Egypt with the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak initially camouflaged itself in the language of revolution and promises of democracy, even as it worked to prevent the collapse of the old order and divide and conquer its challengers. But Thursday’s rulings by the Supreme Constitutional Court have shed the disguise: Egypt will be effectively ruled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) junta and its backers in the bureaucracy and judiciary until further notice.

The court, a holdover from the Mubarak era, not only slapped down a law passed by the democratically elected parliament to bar officials of the former regime from running for office but also effectively dissolved the legislature itself. The first ruling upholds the candidacy of the military’s preferred option, former Mubarak Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, in Saturday’s presidential-election runoff against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. And given the events of recent weeks, the smart money wouldn’t bet against him coming out on top in the race for a position whose powers have not yet been defined, a process over which the military retains a prerogative. Dissolving the parliament on the grounds that one-third of its seats were allegedly elected in an unconstitutional manner (albeit under the supervision of the junta and judiciary) may have even more far-reaching consequences: the Constituent Assembly, a highly contested body appointed by the parliament to draft a new constitution, is unlikely to survive the dissolution of the legislature that created it.

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“Today’s moves by the Constitutional Court on behalf of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces seem difficult to overcome and likely to push Egypt onto a dangerous new path,” warns George Washington University analyst Marc Lynch, who was an adviser to the Obama Administration during last year’s Arab rebellions. “With Egypt looking ahead to no parliament, no constitution and a deeply divisive new President, it’s fair to say the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end. Weeks before the SCAF’s scheduled handover of power, Egypt now finds itself with no parliament, no constitution (or even a process for drafting one) and a divisive presidential election with no hope of producing a legitimate, consensus-elected leadership. Its judiciary has become a bad joke, with any pretense of political independence from the military shattered beyond repair.”

The military has effectively closed the chapter of “revolution” and ended hope that the Mubarak regime would be followed by a democratic political order. Whereas some Muslim Brotherhood leaders had spoken of Egypt’s following the model of today’s prosperous and relatively democratic Turkey (governed by moderate Islamists), the generals and their allies followed a different Turkish model: the “deep state” Turkey of the past century, in which electoral politics were a sideshow intended to create a veneer of legitimacy for the authority of Kemalist generals and judges styling themselves as guardians of secularism. As if by way of exclamation point on their latest rulings, the judges on Wednesday reimposed de facto martial law, restoring the security forces’ blanket authority to make arbitrary arrests until such time as a new constitution is in force. Currently, there is no timetable for tabling a new constitution. And the only institution with any democratic legitimacy has now been dissolved, with no clarity on how and when it will be replaced.

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The events that saw Mubarak unceremoniously wheeled off, stage left, in February 2011, and later imprisoned, were more of a palace coup than a revolution. A junta of generals responded to the crisis presented by the massive protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to ease out the helmsman in order to save the regime. They weren’t guided by a clear plan or even a coherent strategy; the generals and their allies simply improvised their way through the political turmoil to emerge in an improbably dominant position.

The Egyptian deep state’s efforts to reassert its dominance has been enabled in no small part by the rolling chaos that is Egypt’s increasingly ineffectual post-Mubarak politics: the protest in Tahrir Square was bereft of a coherent leadership or strategy, and it was increasingly marginalized as Islamist parties and primarily the Muslim Brotherhood used their extensive grassroots organizational reach to emerge as the dominant force in the new parliament. Although leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi finished in a strong third place, and his share of the vote combined with that of liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in fourth place amounted to some 40% of the ballots cast, the runoff race gives Egyptians a choice between the old regime, represented by Shafik, and the mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, represented by Morsi. That’s a choice many revolutionaries refuse to make, calling instead for a boycott of the poll. But that may simply be a sign that events have left them on the sidelines. And the failure of the Brotherhood and the secular opposition parties to agree on a common program to ensure democracy and civilian rule may yet prove to be the undoing of both camps.

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Political gridlock may not be the generals’ ideal outcome: they’d prefer to see the reins of government in the hands of pliant politicians who accept the tacit mandate claimed by Egypt’s military, along lines familiar to those in Pakistan, that includes a substantial stake in the economy and a veto on national-security matters. The fact that the Islamists emerged as the leading political force appears to have panicked the deep state, which has responded by essentially short-circuiting the process of creating a new government based on representative democracy. That leaves in place a status quo in which authority remains in the hands of the junta.

One leading judge last weekend made clear the aggressive agenda of the deep state. Ahmed al-Zend, head of the influential Judges Club, representing 8,000 jurists, launched a scathing attack on the parliament democratically chosen in an election overseen by the very judges he represents, denouncing it as “a thorn in Egypt’s side” and threatening to block implementation of its legislation. Indeed, in a statement as comical as it was chilling, al-Zend declared that if the judges had known the outcome that the recent parliamentary elections would produce, they’d never have agreed to oversee them.

“From this day forward,” al-Zend warned, “judges will have a say in determining the future of this country and its fate. We will not leave it to you to do with what you want.”

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The junta appears to be reading off the same script, although its actions may be less the outcome of a coherent strategy for restoring power than the result of clumsy improvisations driven by a desire to protects its core interests and demobilize the revolutionaries. Lynch believes the latest moves from the junta are based on “its belief that it had effectively neutered revolutionary movements and protesters” and that it was unlikely to face a renewed revolutionary upsurge as a result of its own repression as well as the divisions among its opponents and the growing weariness of the wider Egyptian public after 18 months of turmoil.”

“It doesn’t feel threatened by a few thousand isolated protesters in Tahrir, and probably is gambling that they won’t be joined by the masses that made the Jan. 25 revolution last year,” Lynch notes. “They may also feel that the intense rifts of suspicion and rage dividing the Muslim Brotherhood from non-Islamist political trends are now so deep that they won’t be able to cooperate effectively to respond. Or they may feel that the Brotherhood would rather cut a deal, even now, than take it to the next level. They may be right, they may be wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on stability.”

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