Why did the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) rule Egypt during the transitional period in such tragic fashion, leading to such a bitter harvest?
In view of the deliberate murkiness and lack of transparency that characterised the rule of SCAF, one can only surmise from events.
There are essentially three possible explanations, that are not mutually exclusive: functionalist, conspiratorial, and utilitarian. I shall review each briefly and leave the final judgment to the reader.
The functionalist explanation revolves around the notion that SCAF took upon itself a task beyond its capacity and capabilities: the rule of a country as big and complex as Egypt on the heels of an exceptional popular uprising. Nevertheless, SCAF claimed full competence with sheer audacity that belies incompetence. Then, when choosing advisors and assistants, it opted, as is the habit of authoritarian rule, for the weak who tend to kiss up to authority. Do you remember Essam Sharaf?
As SCAF did not break with the corrupt and despotic governance regime that the popular uprising aimed to overthrow, and as SCAF was itself one of its pillars, its decisions always appeared to remind me of someone trying, without proven ability, to ride three agitated tigers at the same time: the revolutionary forces, and enemies of the revolution, inside and outside the country, in the region and the world. All the time placating itself by the pretence of omnipotence in its official and crony media, and appointing docile governments, and more docile political allies. But when the political scene clouded, allies and sycophants became less and less malleable. No wonder the transitional period was characterised by rampant clumsiness and chaos.
The conspiratorial explanation presumes that SCAF made a promise to its former commander-in-chief to quash the popular revolution and punish the people for trying. To accomplish this mission, it chose political Islamist forces as an ally, though the relationship often suffered from tension, as happens in any opportunistic coalition.
Now, a full 18 months after toppling the former despot, SCAF can be seen to report to him as in the following fictional scene:
"Mission accomplished, Sir. Revolution quashed. We are very sorry for all the inconvenience you and your family endured. It was beyond our control, the pressure on us was immense. But, thank God, all is well now. The system is as you left it. If the new president is not one of us, his hands will be tied and the country will be controlled by the military. A presidential decree will be issued for a full amnesty for you and your esteemed family. This way, Gamal 'bey' could run for president the next time around.
There is no security in the country, tourism is all but vanished, the economy is in ruins as you left it, and the treasury is empty. But the economic enterprises of the armed forces are still thriving.
The people have been given a tough lesson; freedoms abrogated, no ordinary young man can find a decent job, poverty is rampant, inflation is beyond control and the revolutionary youth have been subdued by military courts.
The Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) and Salafists were troublesome at times but helped us in parliament by ensuring the continuation of the system and obstructing a new wave of revolution. But then when one of them was about to be elected president, we dissolved parliament, handcuffed the president-elect and retained legislative authority.
Finally, our men in the security sector, civilian and military, are fully ready to put down any riots similar to what erupted in January 2011, and our men in the judiciary are standing by to issue watertight verdicts to secure our interests."
A variation of this explanation postulates that SCAF decided to turn against its former leader in order to preserve the regime, especially the interests of the leadership of the armed forces that flourished under Mubarak's corrupt authoritarian rule.
In general, it can be asserted that the contention that SCAF stood at equal distance from all political forces, and presidential candidates, has evaporated into the air of the turbulent transitional period. Naturally the details of the battle to put down the revolution have been complex and tumultuous.
The unavoidable conclusion is that the democracy SCAF ended up offering the people a choice between two main political entities: the fallen regime and organised political Islam. Exactly the same two choices the fallen despot used to offer Egyptians and the world!
Now, do Egyptians have to thank SCAF for turning the clock back a full 18 months, after enduring unbearable turbulence and misery?
Finally, in the utilitarian explanation, SCAF has shown no desire to relinquish authority as promised after it took power from the revolutionary youth, at least not fully, or not before certain of its requirements are met in the legal and institutional structure of the state, guaranteeing the interests of the leadership of the armed forces.
As shown by the "complementary" constitutional declaration, these interests centre around hamstringing the new president, if civilian, and retaining full control of the armed forces, its economic assets and arms deals. In effect, SCAF ended up retaining both the legislative authority and the most important tool of executive authority, the budget. In addition, it kept issuing executive decrees hours before the results of the presidential elections were announced, even appointing military personnel to the president's staff. The going joke is that SCAF has indeed handed over power, to itself.
SCAF and its supporters claim that the purpose of this "complementary" constitutional declaration is to protect the civil character of the state from the threat of a religious takeover.
A more likely explanation is that SCAF was laying the foundation for the other infringement of a civil state: a military aristocracy in politics and society.