In November 2011 protests erupted in Egypt in response to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' (SCAF) move to alter the constitutional declaration that governs the post-Mubarak state. They issued a series of new laws that would prevent members of the military council from being tried for their handling of the transition and limit the future government's ability to oversee the military's budget. The move resulted in what were at the time the largest protests since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, and international criticism of SCAF who was seen threatening the democratic transition and violently suppressing peaceful protests.
On the eve of the second round of the country's elections, SCAF again issued changes to the country's interim constitution that give the military sweeping powers in the legislative and defense arenas of the state as well as budgetary and prosecutorial immunity. What has been called a "soft coup" for its abrupt and decisive attack on the country's civil forces, the move effectively undid much of the progress Egypt has made over the past 16 months. News of SCAF's actions was again met with protests from Egyptians and the international community, but political pressure from the U.S. to hand over control of the military is limited. While this stance may help ensure the safeguarding of one of the region's most powerful militaries and an important ally in the short-term, denying the civilian government oversight and control of the country's armed forces fails to achieve a fundamental element of democratic rule and threatens the long-term viability of Egypt's state. The U.S., like many young Egyptians, should look to Turkey as an example of the positive impact of transitioning from military to civilian control, a scenario that has ultimately led to greater internal stability and openness as well as a strong ally in regional conflicts.
As the tension surrounding SCAF's apparent power grab subsided, motives on all sides have become clearer. The military council is engaged above all else in an effort of self-preservation. The SCAF's position in Egypt extends far beyond the purview of a traditional military into governance, industry, and foreign relations, and they have become the target of political and social discontent. Though the military council is not interested in a position in the political spotlight, something that makes the US' tempered support for transition more tenable, the generals will secure their interests and immunity through whatever means they can. This power struggle can lead to open confrontation between military and political forces, seen most recently in the battle over the annex to the constitutional declaration and President Morsi's decision to reinstate parliament. These conflicts have destabilized the country and have the potential to lead to violence and unrest. But for Washington, SCAF's desire to hold on to power, at least military power, is not unwelcome. By seeking to assure the West of its control in the security realm and guard against the transfer of military authority to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's military retains its status as a "pillar of stability" in the region and the aid money that comes with it.
While the U.S. has made clear that it will not go through with threats to withhold military aid to Egypt, the specter of those threats and other public statements against the military council's actions do carry weight. By failing to pressure the SCAF on handing over control of elements of Egypt's military, the transition to civilian rule will be limited to the outcome of negotiations between the Muslim Brotherhood and SCAF. Those negotiations will fail to dislodge the military from its position as the Brotherhood has few bargaining chips and a demonstrated preference for securing its position rather than pushing for deep reform. Therefore, it is essential that the U.S. play a role in pursuing a gradual and smooth transition that addresses both the development of the fundamental elements of a democratic state and unseats the entrenched interests of the military.
This weekend Hillary Clinton is slated to arrive in Egypt to meet with President Morsi and Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr and will deliver a speech in Alexandria's library. Washington's voice is crucial as discussions over Egypt's government are underway, and what Clinton tells Egyptians will matter. The most important issue on the agenda should be pressuring the military to allow oversight of security matters and to pave the way for civilian control of the armed forces. Secretary Clinton should focus on three issues that will help ensure the long-term viability of the state:
- Allow for an independent investigation of the military's handling of the transition. SCAF has acted as the interim government since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and has been accused of killing protestors; an investigation into these allegations is essential in closing the book on the transition.
- Ensure that the civilian government has oversight of the military's budget and an independent and empowered ministry of defense.
- Push for representation of all of Egypt's political forces in the near-term and encourage the development of a robust civil society.
The best way to ensure that the biggest policy priority of the U.S. in Egypt (keeping the peace deal with Israel in place,) is met is to ensure that adequate checks to military authority are in place. The example of Pakistan should be taken as a warning that perhaps the greatest threat to the U.S. is our reliance on a military institution that we find ourselves struggling to control. By supporting the development of an empowered civilian government and robust civil society Washington will ultimately help guard against an Egyptian military that answers to no one and promote the long-term interests of peace and stability that we share with Egyptians.