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Four 'safe-exit' scenarios for Egypt's military rulers

Possible exit strategies for country's military generals include securing privileges in new constitution, finding a loyal presidential candidate or a complete military takeover of political power

Hani Alaassar, Monday 5 Mar 2012
SCAF
A meeting of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011 (Snapshot: state television)
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The role and position of the army after the ruling military council hands over power to a civilian president is one of the main areas of debate between presidential candidates, political parties and revolutionaries as Egyptians talk about writing a new constitution, electing a new president and putting an end to the military-governed transitional period.

The term "safe exit" will be ringing in the ears of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) during its remaining months in power. The term spelled misfortune for former president Mubarak in the period before his downfall on 11 February of last year.

No one could have imagined that the same term would be also applied a year later to the SCAF, which was cheered by millions of Egyptians on that historic evening when Mubarak stepped down.

Yet a series of political failures during the year-long transition period have pushed most revolutionary forces into the anti-SCAF camp. The SCAF's position is now similar position to Mubarak after he failed to carry out reforms that might have allowed him to exercise an option of a safe exit.

The SCAF may even be in a more difficult position compared to Mubarak. Indeed, due to the “exceptional” and “transitory” nature of its stint in office, the generals do not even have the luxury of granting the people reforms, which the well-empowered Mubarak could have done if he had wanted to.

A narrow range of choices force the SCAF, and the country as a whole, to ask what realistic exit scenarios might be available to the generals.

Several options have been proposed, despite the predicament.

The Turkish Option

The best and most likely exit scenario, according to Professor Essam Shiha, a constitutional expert and member of the Higher Council of the liberal Wafd Party, is a constitution which resembles the Turkish one, prior to its most recent amendments.

The constitutional safe exit would guarantee the independence of the military and its leadership from supervision by other government bodies, and the safest option for members of the SCAF to escape prosecution by any authority in the country.

Such a constitutional safe exit would be tantamount to granting “parliamentary immunity” to both the current military council – which would be the first military power to step down voluntarily in Egyptian history – and to any future military commanders.

A Loyal President

The second exit scenario, proposed by Cairo University's political science Professor Amani Massoud, is for the SCAF to back a loyalist presidential candidate. The generals would try persuade political forces with popular support to consent to their candidate, or at the very least to neutralise any dissenters.

The victory of a SCAF-backed presidential candidate would allow it to maintain its effective rule and exit the scene unharmed.

The SCAF's proposal of a "consensual president" shows this option is already being seriously considered. It did so to measure the degree of popular acceptance of such a president and the readiness of revolutionary forces to accept it, as it meant the generals themselves stepping down.

These first two scenarios, which depend mainly on arrangements with Islamists parties, are most applicable at this stage. The political scene is relatively calm at the moment but is not calm all the time.

Since Mubarak's ouster there have been a number of occasions when revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and elsewhere have called for the SCAF to step down immediately. Revolutionaries condemned the military for cracking down on peaceful protests and betraying the revolution it claimed to be protecting.

Hundreds of thousands of people marched to demand a swift end to military rule on the revolution's first anniversary in January. If protests erupt again as the presidential elections near, the Turkish model or the loyal president option could be taken off the table.

A Coup d'Etat

General Assem Geneidy, a security expert, has noted that the SCAF could induce generalised chaos in the country, in order to set the scene for a coup d'état.

In this situation, the SCAF could declare martial law, ban all political parties and activities, annul the election results, and completely suppress all freedom of expression.

This would represent a rerun of the 1952 Free Officers coup, led by the late president Gamal Abdel Nasser. Two years after the coup, which toppled King Farouk, Nasser destroyed all hopes for democracy by becoming the de-facto ruler for decades.

However, Geneidy believes that this exit scenario is the least likely option of all those on the table. There are significant differences between the Free Officers coup and the January 25 Revolution, as well a reluctance by international powers to support coups today, compared to five decades ago.

Geneidy points out that in 1952 it was the army that took the initiative, which was later supported by the popular masses, and this meant that the populace remained subservient at all times to the will of the military officers thereafter.

By contrast, the people’s ownership over taking the initiative in the January 25 Revolution put the masses in the driver’s seat, forcing the generals to think twice about employing the coup weapon to exit the scene.

Morever, Geneidy says that the SCAF will most likely face tremendous international pressure if the generals carry out a coup against the revolution and democratic transition, which could mean the end of any hope for safe exit.

The SCAF might attempt to pre-emptively coordinate with international allies ahead of any planned coup in order to at the least neutralise its friends/critics. Still, there is no guarantee that the SCAF would be able to suppress public anger and outrage against an attack by the generals on the revolution and hard-won freedoms.

An Orchestrated SCAF Re-shuffle

Undoubtedly, the SCAF always thinks twice about the public’s reactions to any of its moves when it plans its safe exit.

The fourth scenario that the SCAF might consider is to orchestrate a military coup, not by the council, but by middle-ranking officers.

These young officers would pose to the public as patriots who are simply angry with the SCAF’s failures to achieve the revolution’s goals; behind the scenes, they would remain loyal to the military council.

Such a coup against the SCAF by young radical-sounding officers could push public opinion to support these officers wholeheartedly; it could lend the rebels a degree of revolutionary legitimacy in the eyes of the masses, ultimately forcing any political or revolutionary current to think twice before attempting to stand in the SCAF’s way.

This scenario could present the young officers with an opportunity to issue decisions at will that would suppress any political opposition, guaranteeing either a direct safe exit for current members of SCAF, or at an indirect exit after holding show trials for some generals.

However, this scenario may not be acceptable to a many of the council’s 19 members who are unlikely to want to end their military careers on a note of humiliation.

Still, this scenario might remain the SCAF’s best option to exit safely, without precipitating a violent confrontation between the people and the army.

In fact, the fourth option might represent the ideal way for the SCAF to diffuse any international pressure or opposition to the continuation of the military in power; it could also simultaneously allow the generals to leave safely because, as Patrick Ghali recently argued in his investigative report on the issue in Foreign Policy magazine, potential widespread popular support for young officers might prove a decisive factor in helping them confront any international power that rejects military rule.

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