Why the SCAF announcement is not good for Egypt

On Saturday Sami Anan, chief of staff of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), released a document signalling a much awaited change in several key policies. The day before, Friday 30th September, protestors had flocked to Tahrir Square to protest against the ongoing military rule in Egypt and demand a transition to civilian rule. At the same time, political parties had threatened to boycott the upcoming legislative elections were there not changes to the electoral law, with the Muslim Brotherhood even threatening ‘a revolution’ on Sunday had its demands not been met. The SCAF announcement, coming a day later, seemed to be a direct result of such pressure.

News reports have tended to see Saturday’s statement by the SCAF as the result of pressure from mass protests and political parties thus implying some concession by the military leaders to democracy and popular will. The BBC stated that:

“Egypt’s ruling military council has decided to amend an article of an election law, state media report, following demands from protesters.”

The Egyptian Gazette goes further in describing the announcement as the SCAF “caving in” to popular pressure.

Initially, there seems to be reason to praise the SCAF’s announcement. It purports to set out a timetable to the handover power to a civilian government, promise the end of military trials for civilians and the emergency law and amend the controversial electoral law.  However, closer analysis of the document makes for a less optimistic reading.

Perhaps the issue that resonates most strongly with the public is the military trials of civilians. Since the revolution, more people have been tried under military law than under the entire 30 years of Mubarak’s reign. On Friday nearly every protestor and wall was covered with stickers saying الثوار مش بلطجيه – ليه نتحاكم عسكرية؟ (Revolutionaries are not thugs – why are we trying them militarily?) or, more simply, أنا ضد المحاكمات العسكرية للمدنيين (I’m against the military trials of civilians). The SCAF document only promises to ‘study’ or ‘look into’ ending military trials for civilians. Anyone who has lived in Egypt will tell you that promising to ‘look into something’ effectively means nothing is going to happen. On top of that, even this vaguest of commitments comes with an immediate caveat: the SCAF will study ending military trials for civilians إلا في الجرائم التي ينص عليها قانون القضاء العسكري (with the exception of crimes committed under the military code of justice). However, Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef points out that this military code includes penal code crimes and covers almost all crimes. In adding this caveat we see that the SCAF doesn’t understand, or is choosing to disregard, the issue at stake. The delineation should not be the type of crime committed but the status of the person committing the crime; military trials should be reserved for military personal – not civilians.

The second ‘concession’ the SCAF made was to set out a clear timetable for transferring power to civilian rule. The problem is that its not clear and barely a timetable. The schedule given by the SCAF is complicated and, crucially, non-binding. Deciphering the announcement reveals that elections for the Lower House (Peoples’ Assembly) are set to begin on 28th November 2011 and last until mid January 2012. Once results have been announced, this house will convene and on the 26th March, the upper house (Shura Council) will sit. Then, by early April, the two houses will come together to draw up a new constitution. This constitution will be written and put to referendum by October. Once the constitution has been passed, candidates will be able to put themselves forward for president and a presidential election will be held within 60 days. Assuming, as is probable, all parts of the process take the maximum amount of time, Egypt is effectively left with a military government until late 2012 or even early 2013 – and that is if there are no unforeseen delays. By that time the SCAF will have been in power for two years will have had the time to entrench its control over Egypt’s political institutions leaving the country in an Algerian-esque part-military/part-civilian political landscape.

Next, the SCAF promises to look into the possibility of “stripping former National Democratic Party members of political rights”. Not only is stripping anybody of their political rights deeply problematic from a human rights standpoint but it must be remembered that Egypt was a one-party state before the revolution. As such, vast numbers of NDP members will have joined the party out of necessity rather than any commitment to Mubarak’s dictatorship. This is especially the case in upper Egypt where big families were courted by the party often with little option other than to work with it.

The final part of the SCAF’s announcement concerns the largely incomprehensible electoral laws. Political parties have vociferously campaigned against article 5 of the new electoral law. As it stands, a third of the MPs in Egypt’s next parliament will be independent candidates. Political parties have decried the law as enabling former Mubarak supporters to gain seats in the parliament and for encouraging vote buying as people vote for individuals and not party manifestos. That political parties call for a larger proportion of seats to go to political parties should come as no surprise. Indeed, the amendment to article 5 should be seen more as the SCAF appeasing the parties than as a genuine concession to democracy and greater civilian control of Egyptian politics.

The argument that the SCAF gave in to popular pressure is undermined by the fact that Friday’s turnout, at between 5,000 to 10,000 was below expectations and far below the level needed to intimidate the SCAF.

Despite hopes that it was a response to democratic pressures, the SCAF document serves only to sap more optimism from those hoping for a democratic, civilian-run, Egypt. It is this dying optimism that is leading to a build up of tension against the SCAF. On Friday I heard for the first time mass chants specifically against leader of the SCAF FIeld Marshal Tantawi with 1000s of people chanting الشعب يريد إسقاط المشير (the people want the overthrowing of the field marshal). Without a genuine change in the direction of Egyptian politics an escalation in the tension is inevitable.