Editor’s Note: Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student at Harvard University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
By Shashank Joshi – Special to CNN
The root cause of Egypt’s violence is praetorian overreach. The Egyptian army, buoyed by its apparent role as savior of the revolution, judged that it could manipulate the democratic transition to keep its privileges intact. It was wrong.
Overt the last ten months, Egypt's ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), has re-imposed martial law, engaged in arbitrary detention and torture, and sharply curtailed rights of assembly and freedom of expression.
In November, these counter-revolutionary moves reached fever pitch. Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Ali al-Silmi, most likely with the approval of the high command, released a set of 'supra-constitutional principles' that would have imposed tight limits on the scope of Egypt's new constitution.
Those principles accorded the military the status of 'protector of constitutional legitimacy', which was – quite reasonably – interpreted as a 'right to launch coups'. SCAF was to be given the exclusive right to scrutinize its budget, the right to manage 'all the affairs of the armed forces' without accountability to elected legislators, and a veto over any laws relating to the army.
In short, SCAF, led by the increasingly mistrusted Field Marshal Tantawi, wishes to create a political model resembling the Turkey of the 1980s or Pakistan of today – an eviscerated democracy with no control over its national security policy, weighed down by a bloated and self-serving military-industrial apparatus.
To subdue the crowds, Tantawi offered a controversial referendum on the army's role in the interim. He invoked a 'silent majority' of Egyptians who opposed the protests, desired stability, and were content with military stewardship of the transition – implying that a majority of Egyptians would ask SCAF to stick around until July.
To understand whether this will make a difference, it’s important to examine how these concessions relate to Egyptians’ grievances. The demands of Egyptian protesters, though difficult to pin down, might be simplified as fourfold: early presidential elections; an even earlier transition to civilian administration; a genuine transition, in which all powers are vested in civilian (and eventually elected) authority rather than an unelected army; and accountability for officials, particularly those in the Ministry of the Interior, responsible for violence against protesters.
The protests have secured a concession on the first of these, the timing of presidential elections. But it's far from clear whether they can secure the other three.
The first problem is whether Tantawi is right on the issue of a 'silent majority'. Whereas the military's approval rating in the spring was 90 per cent, now 43 per cent now believe that the military is working to reverse the gains of the revolution. So the protests do have a popular base.
But anecdotal evidence also suggests that many outside Tahrir Square did not approve of further protests. Issandr El-Amrani, a Cairo-based journalist, last week described an 'ambience of martyrdom' in Tahrir Square, in which 'the fighting is being sustained by the protestors, not by the police'.
This assertiveness may yet leave the crowds distant from mainstream opinion, or at least from the 57 per cent of polled Egyptians who do not perceive SCAF to be intentionally retarding the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood is sitting out the violence in Tahrir Square, loath to do anything that would jeopardize next week's elections in which it expects to do well.
Postponing elections carried great risks – it would deeply alienate Islamist groups, who would interpret any delay as an attempt at electoral exclusion. It would also be pointless unless a popular team of civilian rulers was waiting in the wings, which doesn't seem to be the case. The election of a parliament might also create powerful new political force that would have been able to challenge the specifics of military rule more forcefully. But if elections are marred by violence, or liberal groups stay away, the situation might worsen.
More important than postponing elections is restoring faith in government. In all likelihood, this cannot be done with piecemeal concessions from SCAF. The optimal solution may be to delay elections by two weeks (but no more), and use the time to cobble together a unity government. More likely, SCAF will take a gamble by holding firm until elections, and then reiterating its offer of a referendum in the hope of isolating the protesters.
Meanwhile, the United States has demonstrated remarkable policy myopia in calling for 'restraint on all sides', as if blame for the present crisis can be apportioned to all parties equally. Washington is repeating its flawed diplomacy from January, when it consistently sought to prioritize 'stability' over reform, thereby getting neither, and falling far behind events in the eyes of ordinary Egyptians.
It should also be noted that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have contributed significant amounts to Islamist groups, out of both ideology and in recognition of Egypt as a strategic bulwark against Iran. These states will also wield influence over Egypt's future.
The experience of Pakistan, amongst others, shows that, as tempting as it is to deal directly with military authorities, the long-term political health of Egypt will require civilian control over the armed forces.
In very few countries can a powerful military establishment be dissolved overnight – in Turkey, for instance it has taken decades of strong and slow boring of hard boards. Egypt’s democrats should recognize that this is merely the second round in a very long fight.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Shashank Joshi.