In the sixteen months since the ouster of its long-serving strongman, Hosni Mubarak, one question has stood at the heart of the turbulent political debate taking place in Egypt: who will ultimately end up in charge?
No longer. On June 14th, Egypt's Constitutional Court issued two landmark legal rulings which together have dramatically reshuffled the country's political deck—and moved it considerably closer to military rule, civil war, or both.
The first concerns the country's unfolding presidential contest. The initial round in that competition, which took place late last month, resulted in a closely contested race between former prime minister and air force chief Ahmed Shafiq and Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi. Now, on the eve of the second round of presidential polling (slated to start on Saturday), the court ruling confirms that Shafiq, a stalwart of the country's old guard, can indeed stand in this weekend's presidential runoff. The decision reverses a previous edict disqualifying Shafiq's candidacy—and sets up a stark political choice for voters between the military establishment and its Islamist opposition.
The court's second ruling also has taken aim at the power of Egypt's Islamist forces. The country's multi-stage legislative elections, held between November of 2011 and January of this year, netted a parliament heavily dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Nour Party. The Constitutional Court has now upended that balance, invalidating one-third of the seats in the Islamist-controlled legislature and setting the stage for a wholesale disqualification of both houses of parliament.
Cumulatively, the two decisions represent a power play by the Egyptian military and its ruling body, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The protracted transition that has taken place in post-revolutionary Egypt over the past year has been animated by a tug-of-war between the "deep state" of Egypt's political-military complex and the insurgent politics of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological fellow travelers. To date, however, this contest has been played largely by democratic rules. But now, the SCAF has forced the issue, using legislative and judicial levers to restore the status quo ante: a regime dominated by the country's entrenched military elite.
In doing so, it has banked on the fact that most Egyptians, desperate for some semblance of normalcy after months of domestic turmoil, may be willing to accept the relative stability of a military junta, even if it means moving backward from the democratic aspirations that brought down Mubarak last year. It thus has put into practice the philosopher Eric Hoffer's famous dictum that "when freedom destroys order, the yearning for order destroys freedom."
And it may be right. As one Egyptian human rights activist put it to CNN upon hearing news of the virtual coup, "We'd be outraged if we weren't so exhausted." But even if the SCAF's power grab galvanizes enough popular outrage to bring Egyptians to the streets, the country's military enjoys something close to a monopoly on the use of force—and has every reason to use it to restore order.
The only meaningful challenge to military control might come from the country's powerful Muslim Brotherhood. But, as David Schenker and Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy have pointed out, the Brotherhood for the moment has at least some cause to proceed cautiously:
According to Egyptian press reports, senior Brotherhood officials have been meeting with top SCAF generals, including discussions earlier this week between MB deputy supreme guide Khairat al-Shater and armed forces chief of staff Sami Enan. This suggests a deal could be in the works, perhaps securing an MB premiership under a Shafiq presidency.
If such a deal cannot be hammered out, however, Islamists could well take to the streets, with civil war the logical outcome.
Even without sustained domestic unrest, though, the SCAF's victory could well turn out to by Pyrrhic. Financially, the situation in Egypt has gone from bad to worse over the past year-and-a-half, with no end in sight. At this time last year, the Egyptian economy was rapidly approaching crisis, with the government hemorrhaging some $1 billion monthly in the absence of meaningful tourism revenue and foreign direct investment. This state of affairs has been exacerbated by disastrous choices on the part of Egypt's transitional government, including the rejection of concrete offers of assistance from the International Monetary Fund in favor of ephemeral promises of aid from Gulf allies—aid that, to a large extent, still has not materialized. As a result, in the words of one worried regional official, Egypt is now hovering on the verge of "state failure to the tune of 80 million people."
Under these circumstances, righting the Egyptian ship of state would be a tall order even with a compliant parliament, a popular president and broad national political consensus. But the SCAF's power grab has sown the seeds of new, and potentially catastrophic, divisions in the already-fractious Egyptian body politic. The ultimate outcome is still unknown. What is already clear, however, is that Egypt's troubled transition has ended. Only time will tell whether it is with a bang or a whimper.