What is SCAF?
Any account of contemporary Egyptian politics must reckon with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). Created in 1954 by Gamal Abdel Nasser, SCAF provided the armed forces with an intermittent mechanism to influence government. SCAF reappeared during the demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 and took control of the government until Morsi’s election in 2012.
In February 2014, former Supreme Court justice and interim president Adly Mansour issued Law 20/2014. It defined SCAF’s membership and authorized it to approve the choice of defense ministers. The law implemented Article 234 of the 2014 constitution that, until 2020, appointing the minister of defense requires SCAF’s approval. SCAF had insisted on this provision even though it caused divisive political conflicts and sometimes street battles between 2011 and 2014.
Egypt’s armed forces feared for their autonomy since late 2011. In 2012, Morsi ousted top army officers, including the minister of defense, replacing them with others he believed to be more trustworthy. Sissi has now gone much further. Within a small coterie of high-ranking generals, Sissi has replaced old supporters with much closer confidants.
This appeared to be an elaborate game of musical chairs in which a small group of closely connected officers rotated control of the state. When the music came to a halt on June 14, the two primary institutions constitutionally able to check the president meekly accepted their elimination. By forfeiting their rights, parliament and the armed forces also transformed the newly written Egyptian constitution into a dead letter. If neither the army nor the elected legislature can exercise its rights, what chance do other Egyptians — whether individuals or institutions — have?
What about the constitution?
Article 146 of the constitution gives the president the right to appoint a prime minister, but parliament must give the new government a vote of confidence. On June 14, a new government was sworn in. This government presented by new Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli replaced Sobhi as minister of defense with Muhammad Ahmed Zaki. SCAF has not approved Zaki’s appointment publicly, and parliament has yet to accept Madbouli’s government. Why have these two presumably pro-Sissi institutions not rubber-stamped his appointments?
A key reason for this institutional defiance was Sissi’s 2016 decision to transfer control over two small islands in the Red Sea, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi sovereignty. Article 151 of the constitution forbids the cession of state territory. Egyptian nationalism fueled opposition to the move in the armed forces, the courts and parliament.
Can Sissi be challenged?
Sissi has focused on blocking any political challenge to his presidency. In late 2017, he declared his candidacy for a second term. Mubarak’s last prime minister — and ex-general who lost the presidential election in 2012 — Ahmad Shafiq declared he would oppose Sissi. Shafiq vanished from the United Arab Emirates, where had been living in exile since losing the 2012 presidential race to Morsi — leading to claims that Shafiq had been kidnapped or deported. In early January, Shafiq announced via Twitter that he was no longer running.
Days later, former Armed Forces chief of staff Sami Anan announced that he would contest the presidential election. He was arrested on Jan. 23 and has been detained since. Anan’s ties to the military establishment are more recent and more powerful than Shafiq’s, as he had also been deputy chairman of SCAF. The government wasted little time or effort on squashing Anan’s proposed candidacy. Anan was arrested for violating military regulations because the armed forces claimed that he had not received official permission to run for office as required by a November 2011 decree. Anan has been in custody ever since and was recently reportedly transferred to the intensive-care unit of the armed forces hospital.
The arrests of two former generals, the summary ouster of the defense minister without public SCAF approval and the installation of a new ministry without parliamentary approval conclude the consolidation of Sissi’s personal control.
Parliament has not yet ratified the new government but did pass a law on July 3 in closed session. The law allows the president to award special (and unspecified) benefits to SCAF members now and in the future. No SCAF members can be held judicially accountable for acts committed between July 3, 2013, (the date of the coup) and Jan. 10, 2016 (the restoration of parliament). When SCAF members travel abroad, they may receive diplomatic immunity.
The new Egyptian political system of one
The rotation of key security officials, and the legal proceedings against Anan and Shafiq, show the limits of military resistance to Sissi’s authority. The government has shown it has many ways to threaten generals and former generals. On this view, the ouster of a defense minister, the installation of a new cabinet and the legislation safeguarding some but not necessarily all officers is an indication how Sissi has turned a government of generals into a government of one. In August 2013, less than two months after the coup that ousted Morsi, Egyptian security forces forcibly dispersed demonstrators occupying the Rabaa Square in Cairo, killing hundreds. It is common for authoritarian regimes to repress their opponents, but it is also common, albeit more easily forgotten, that they also repress their friends.
Ellis Goldberg is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Washington.