Egypt’s Transition: The Generals Take Over

Following its 48-hour ultimatum, it is expected that the Egyptian military will proceed any moment with its plan to suspend the constitution, dissolve the parliament, and put in place an interim caretaker government. The reported travel ban imposed on President Mohamed Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood officials seems only a first step.

President Morsi has been a bad leader and it will be heartening to see him go. Still, even if the transfer of power is peaceful, the military solution is a bad one. One hopes that the events lead U.S. policymakers to reconsider their commitment to Egypt’s military–after all,  American military aid, currently amounting to about $1.3 billion annually, has propped-up the growth of Egypt’s bloated military complex, which might currently control up to 40 percent of the country’s economy.

Most importantly, the military acting as a deus ex machina whenever things take a bad turn sets a terrible precedent for the future of the Egyptian democracy. To whom will the future democratically elected leaders of the country be accountable–voters or the generals?

And even if it is only temporary, a rule by the military–or rule by an interim caretaking government–will inexorably lead to reform paralysis. For months after February 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was effectively running the country, without any remotely impressive results. The country is in a dire economic situation, requiring an urgent fiscal adjustment and deep structural reforms. Neither the military nor the interim government will have the mandate to pursue such reforms. Even if adopted, economic measures introduced without a popular mandate will be easily reversible.

While unsavory and inept, the presidency of Mr. Morsi and the government of Prime Minister Hisham Qandil had at least some claim to democratic legitimacy. An overhaul of the country’s constitutional order–which is what the military is effectively doing–means a return to the situation two years ago. A continuation of the constitutional status quo, however unsatisfying but perfectible through the democratic process, is almost certainly preferable to yet another convoluted discussion about the country’s constitution under the auspices of an opaque military.

A general lesson from post-communist transitions is that countries in which the political elites were able to make credible commitments to pro-market reforms and limited government early-on fared much better than those that became trapped in protracted power struggles. Egypt now risks ending up in the latter category.

It is a disappointment that Egypt’s political crisis is unlikely to result in a cross-party agreement to shorten Mr. Morsi’s mandate, bring forward the presidential and Shura elections, and set a firm date for the election to the Lower House. A second big-bang political and constitutional change since 2011, overseen by the SCAF, heralds prolonged instability and government dysfunction. It is unlikely that the Egyptians can afford it.