Egyptian politics is prone to exaggeration and panic, fueled by deeply felt frustration, endless political maneuvering, partial information spread through dense and contentious news media, and profound political uncertainty. Things are often not as desperate as they appear. Indeed, I was joking on Twitter yesterday that the expert consensus that today would be a big crisis day in Cairo probably meant nothing would happen, since everybody (including me) is always wrong. But today's moves by the Constitutional Court on behalf of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seem difficult to overcome and likely to push Egypt onto a dangerous new path. With Egypt looking ahead to no parliament, no constitution, and a deeply divisive new president, it's fair to say the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end.
A few weeks ago, I dared to hope that despite "the stupidest transition in history," Egypt might still end up backing into a minimally workable political outcome as long as the SCAF lived up to its promise to transfer power to an elected civilian government. Then, the first round of the presidential election went about as badly as it could have, leaving voters with a choice between the champion of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, after the failure of the political center to unite on a candidate and the arbitrary disqualification of several top candidates from the race. Then, Egypt's political forces failed, and after a last-minute deal failed again, to come up with a way to draft a legitimate constitution. And then, the SCAF discarded one of the real accomplishments of the transition, the end of emergency law, by restoring vast powers to security services to arrest civilians.
Today, Egypt's constitutional court delivered the coup de grace by refusing to disqualify Mubarak's former prime minister Ahmed Shafik from the race and effectively dissolving the elected parliament by declaring the individual election of one-third of its members illegal. The former decision was probably the right one, to be frank, though it was a missed opportunity for a "hail Mary" political reset. But the latter was absurd, destructive, and essentially voids Egypt's last year of politics of meaning. Weeks before the SCAF's scheduled handover of power, Egypt now finds itself with no parliament, no constitution (or even a process for drafting one), and a divisive presidential election with no hope of producing a legitimate, consensus-elected leadership. Its judiciary has become a bad joke, with any pretence of political independence from the military shattered beyond repair.
The SCAF's power grab in the final days looks more like panic than the execution of a carefully prepared master scheme. It likely reflected a combination of fear of rising Islamist power, self-preservation, and growing confidence in its ability to control street protests. The prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood controlling Parliament and the presidency likely scared them more than many people conditioned by speculation about a MB-SCAF alliance recognized -- a dynamic that Robert Springborg captured extremely well for Foreign Policy a few months ago. Of course it wanted to preserve its economic empire and political protections. But both of those were constant over the course of the transition, and don't explain its heavy-handed moves at the climax of the process.
What was new, and which likely emboldened this reckless behavior at the end of the transition, was its belief that it had effectively neutered revolutionary movements and protestors. The SCAF likely believes that a renewal of massive, sustained protest is no longer in the cards through a combination of its own repression and relentless propaganda, along with the strategic mistakes by protestors themselves. It doesn't feel threatened by a few thousand isolated protestors in Tahrir, and probably is gambling that they won't be joined by the masses that made the Jan. 25 revolution last year. They may also feel that the intense rifts of suspicion and rage dividing the Muslim Brotherhood from non-Islamist political trends are now so deep that they won't be able to cooperate effectively to respond. Or they may feel that the MB would rather cut a deal, even now, than take it to the next level. They may be right, they may be wrong. But I wouldn't bet on stability.
Anyone who sees this as the culmination of a devious, effective SCAF master plan needs to take a step back and look at what they have "won," however. The SCAF could have been approaching the end of a process that created reasonably legitimate, elected political institutions and restored confidence and security to the country without fundamentally threatening their core interests. Instead, their great success stands to be placing Shafik on an empty, wobbling throne. He will preside over a country in economic collapse, with little prospect of restoring investor confidence any time soon. The legitimacy of the judiciary has been burned, probably decisively. The dissolution of Parliament would remove any possible alternative source of democratic legitimacy. And the process by which Shafik comes to power ensures that he will provide no buffer for the SCAF since he is transparently their creature. This is "victory"?
The SCAF, in other words, may look to have won this seemingly decisive round. But it's not the endgame. It's only the beginning of a new phase of a horribly mismanaged "transition" that is coming to its well-earned end. What's next? A replay of Algeria in 1991? A return to Jan. 25, 2011? Back to 1954? A return to the petulant slow fail of latter-days Mubarak? An alien invasion using nano-weapons and transgalactic wormholes in the Pyramids? Nobody really seems to know... but I'm pretty sure we're not going to see a return to stable CloneNDP-SCAF rule. Of course, this being Egypt, maybe tomorrow the Court will just overrule itself and we can all go back to normal...
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.