The Chatham House Egypt Dialogue project has released a new briefing paper by Dr Maha Azzam examining civil-military relations in Egypt and pointing to potential sources of tension over the coming months. The paper emphasises the increasing costs that come with a stilted transition towards civilian rule, a development that will distract attention from addressing Egypt’s mounting economic and social problems.
The ruling junta’s period in office has been notable for human rights abuses not dissimilar to those committed under Mubarak. The junta’s acts of repression have inflamed existing sectarian tensions – the fallout from which has then been exploited to justify further repressive measures – and consistently interfered with the transition process.
The victor of this month’s presidential election has the potential to dislodge the military from political life. The top placed candidates, Mohammed Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq, received a combined vote of only 48%, ensuring their place in the final run-off without either candidate attracting a convincing show of support. For both men, negative campaigning is now the strategy of choice. Indeed, their public pronouncements have focused more on stoking mistrust in their rival than on why they deserve to win. This is a risky game that carries the real possibility of pushing voters back towards alienation from formal politics.
This scenario is most conceivable in the event of a Shafiq victory. Given his status as the SCAF candidate of choice, he is likely to slow or even halt the transition to full civilian rule by conceding ground on the Selmy Document’s ‘supra-constitutional’ principles. Dating back to November, these proposals would place the military above government scrutiny with respect to issues that might threaten its dominance or economic interests. As Azzam argues, a stilted transition will fragment the political landscape even further. This risks cementing the idea that this remains a politics for elites at the expense of the masses, a perception that is increasingly leading the disillusioned to look for new arenas of mobilisation. Prior to the revolution this had resulted in the emergence of fluid social movements in a separate sphere to the country’s formal politics. Often coalescing around single issues, these rejected traditional party-based channels as effectual fora through which to communicate their demands.
In the wake of Mubarak’s departure, this form of expression has been reinvigorated to an extent that may yet threaten the hitherto accepted structural constraints of formal politics. This leaves proponents of the latter in a double bind. Confronting military influence will undoubtedly be a formidable challenge. On the other hand, leaving its power in tact risks fragmenting the electorate whilst allowing resistance to gain momentum through informal channels. Much hangs on the new president’s chosen path.