Unlike Libya, where the removal of the brutal Gaddafi regime is complete, Egypt has so far managed only to get rid of the Mubaraks and a few around them. The regime itself, with the army and the security apparatus at the centre, remains largely intact. And no more so than in the shape of Scaf – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – whose members were handpicked by Mubarak and whose chief, Field Marshal Tantawi, is now de facto head of state.
Scaf did play a crucial role in removing Mubarak. The officers maintain they took the side of the revolution but, increasingly, few believe them. There is a growing consensus that their action was motivated by a desire to rescue the regime from impending collapse rather than embracing wholeheartedly the revolution with its far-reaching demands of a regime change.
Does this make Egypt’s revolution failed or incomplete? Possibly yes, if you consider revolutions to be a point in time. But if you believe that a revolution is a more complex process than removing a dictator, then the jury is still out. And the Egyptian revolutionaries cling to that hope.
Inevitably, the process itself is full of conflict, potentially violent, at times erratic, even regressive. The revolutionaries want to press ahead, old regime supporters regrouping and fighting back. This is absolutely necessary to understanding the unfolding drama in Egypt today.
Fear over “what next” has sparked a lot of speculation, based primarily on a reading of Egypt’s recent history and the military’s central role in shaping it. Activists dwell upon a specific episode in 1954 (see below) that proved to be crucial to Egypt’s trajectory during the second half of the 20th century and to this day.
Back in March, Scaf promised to hand power to a civilian administration within six months. Now, seven months later, that prospect is being pushed further into next year, with the election of a civilian president delayed to 2013.
Such delays have fuelled the suspicion that the soldiers want to cling on to power. The sudden appearance of posters with “Tantawi for president” on the streets of Cairo has reinforced fears that the soldiers are up to their old tricks, despite Scaf’s repeated reassurances.
The perceived reluctance of the military to relinquish power has raised the spectre of what they did back in 1954.
Faced with growing demands to return to barracks and to hold a parliamentary election, Colonel Nasser dealt his enemies a mortal blow whose effects have lasted to this day: he reneged on his promise to hold an election and draft a new constitution.
With the support of his allies at the time – the Muslim Brotherhood – Nasser mobilised “the street” against the liberal elite. Historians recount that he paid the leader of the general workers’ union to send his members out on the streets denouncing democracy and the old politicians as colonial stooges.
Back then, the young officers and their Islamist allies knew that an election would hand power back to the old-established political elite against whom they staged their coup, eventually forcing King Farouk to leave the country.
Today, Scaf knows that genuine democratic transition would eventually hand the levers of power to a new political class whose exact contours are only partially known. Given the current balance of power, it is likely the new order would be dominated by Islamists. News of the Islamists’ success in Tunisia’s election must have confirmed Scaf’s worst fears.
This is particularly worrying for the top brass, as there are growing calls to end their virtual autonomy (the army runs a business empire) and to be brought under civilian control and public scrutiny.
But parallels with the past are rarely complete. Today, in an ironic reversal of roles, it is the liberals and secular left, united by their fear of the Brotherhood, who are demanding that Scaf delay the transition to a civilian administration. There are signs the officers have listened and are slowing down the process, much to the anger of the Islamists, who have threatened an all-out confrontation with the army if it does not honour its pledge.
Perhaps a far more important difference is that back in the 1950s it was the army in the driving seat. Today, the revolutionaries, despite their frequent squabbling, set the agenda and have succeeded in securing many concessions. Putting Mubarak and sons on trial is foremost among them.
No less important too is that the soldiers of today were all chosen in Mubarak’s image – dull technocrats, uncharismatic and inarticulate. Compare that to the charismatic and fiery Nasser of the Fifties, and you realise that drawing upon the past has its limitations. It may help articulate fears and expectations of a given society, but fails to fully grasp the specificity of the present.
Yet such analogies throw into sharp focus some of the forces that have forged modern Egypt: the military and religion. Put simply, the solider and the imam, the gun and the pulpit. Renegotiating the balance of power between the two on the one hand, and between them and the wider society on the other is likely to continue to shape the nature of conflict in Egypt for some time to come.
(published in the Guardian 31/10/2011 http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/oct/31/history-haunts-egypt-revolution