Counting continues in the Egyptian Presidential election. But the country’s ‘caretaker’ military rulers – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF – have already moved to complete an effective coup d’etat. They have declared the dissolution of the National Assembly; awarded themselves legislative and budgetary power; given their allies on the constitutional court a veto over any new constitution; and, in effect, re-imposed martial law. It scarcely now matters who ‘wins’ the Presidential poll.
For Europe, this counter-revolution constitutes a conspicuous test of whether we have truly learned the lessons of the Arab uprisings – whether we will, as we have now promised, stand up and be counted on the side of the democrats. Of course, outside military intervention is unthinkable. But Europe has economic leverage it can apply, if it chooses.
It was not meant to be like this. The SCAF had shown themselves, in their self-appointed role as guardians of the revolution after the February 2011 ousting of President Husni Mubarak, to be secretive, erratic and inept. Yet elections to the national assembly went ahead without military interference, resulting in a thumping majority for Islamist parties (Muslim Brotherhood, and Salafis). And right up to the last couple of weeks the SCAF was still expected to honour its promise to hand over power to properly-elected civilians shortly after the completion of the Presidential elections. It was on this expectation that the EU has been working with international partners to assemble the $11 billion of macroeconomic assistance that Egypt needs to pay its bills for longer than the next three months.
The latest military manoeuvres have driven a tank through this prospect of an Egypt continuing with its ‘democratic transition’. The SCAF have revealed themselves as true heirs to Mubarak, more interested in preserving their own interests – the ‘military-industrial complex’ controls a share of Egypt’s GDP estimated at anything between 5 and 30% – than in allowing the people to decide who governs them. Their political opponents may have played into their hands – the Muslim Brotherhood by failing to reach out to secularists and Copts, the secular liberals by sulking when their role as spearhead of the uprisings did not seem to get the people’s acknowledgement at the ballot-box – but it is the military who have botched the transition, polarised a people united by their revolution, and runthe country’s finances almost onto the rocks.
In the bad old days, Europe would probably have persuaded itself to live with the return of military rule, in the interests of ‘stability’. The SCAF are, after all, only Mubarak’s old buddies (their Presidential candidate, ex-General Ahmed Shafiq, was referred to by Mubarak as his ‘third son’) – and Europe had been happy to help keep him in power for over thirty years. But the Arab Spring, and much subsequent soul-searching in Brussels and other European capitals, is meant to have changed all that. Henceforth, all EU member states have now agreed, we help only those who are genuinely pursuing democratic reform.
So Europe faces a critical test of its new and more principled policy. No-one knows how events will play out in coming days and weeks: who will ‘win’ the Presidential election; how the Brotherhood will react; whether the revolution will return to Tahrir Square. But some things are crystal clear. The SCAF’s latest moves are wholly inconsistent with any claim to be protecting a democratic revolution, and lack any legitimacy. There can be no macroeconomic aid package until a roadmap for a quick transition to democratic, civilian rule has been re-established – and one that, this time, is not open to military subversion.
Europe – the EU, and its member states – must say as much now, loudly and in unison.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.