Good article in The Christian Science Monitor about the rebirth of Egyptian state media. It starts out by pointing to the phony story last week about the Egyptian law allowing husbands to have sex with their recently deceased wives and how this was a classic attempt to deride the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist segments. This story, bytheby, was picked up by major international news outlets without any scrutiny. To his credit, Dan Murphy at the CSM called BS for what it was at the time.  

I don’t want to focus on why so many were and are willing to believe such things about Islamists and Muslims more generally—living in Washington, DC for so many years, I’ve seen “Terronoia” seep into the unquestioned consciousness of many an otherwise sober person—but on the state-backed strong-arm tactics at play in Cairo and what this might mean for the impending presidential elections.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power from Husni Mubarak and has since gone from the great hope of the Egyptian people to its curse, is trying to secure its privileges, which are considerable. What many Egyptians failed to realize, but which should have been obvious, was that the military (especially the higher brass) was the regime. Mubarak’s fall was due in part to his having alienated those members of the regime with whom he didn’t happen to share DNA. They weren’t sorry to see him go, though they don’t appear to relish ruling out in the open as he did.

More than a year into it, the SCAF is getting the hang of ruling. They still seem to want an exit back to the quiet role of privilege they once enjoyed, but to do that they have to get a favorable government in place. That means winning an election—something they’ve never had to truly go through before (all elections up until this point being theater). And so, we see them cranking up the old machinery and seeing if they can make a go of it.

So what sort of government would the SCAF like to see? The article above lists Amr Moussa, former Secretary General of the Arab League and Mubarak’s former Foreign Minister, as the SCAF’s preferred candidate. He’s not a bad face for them, but I’m not sure it’s that clear cut. A few weeks ago, erstwhile spymaster and Vice President Oman Suleiman was disqualified by the election commission along with the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and several others. Suleiman had hoped to take the Putin approach as a strongman capable to setting the post-revolutionary chaos aside and bringing back the stability the people nostalgically longed for. Too soon, Omar. Too soon. The commission next disqualified Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s Prime Minister during the uprising, but later recanted and allowed him to run.

The big question here is why Shafiq and not Suleiman? Both come from the ranks of the military elite and both have strong ties to the SCAF. Both stayed with Mubarak and the SCAF leadership when Moussa distanced himself. Either one could be the ancien regime’s favored son, so why the difference in treatment? We are left to speculate here as the commission hasn’t issued any explanations for either decision.

One possible answer is that Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, leader of the SCAF and de facto leader of Egypt, hates Suleiman. Suleiman generally considered Tantawi to be an effeminate weakling and Tantawi seems to have relished in being able to get the best of Suleiman. Shafiq and Tantawi, by contrast, have little personal enmity and can come to an agreement.

Another important question is who is on this election commission, what do they want out of the elections, and by what authority do they make decisions? This is a very good question, but alas, I have no good answer. A commission existed before, under Mubarak, and the current one was put up by the SCAF. It stands to reason that it has the SCAF’s interests at heart, if not that it takes orders directly from it, but that is an assumption. Its rulings sometimes defy easy explanation.

If we can’t know the mind of the commission, how about knowing the mind of its masters: the SCAF or the military elite more generally? This seems a reasonable course of enquiry. One problem: despite decades of US military support and bilateral military relations, the US Intelligence Community and top brass somehow have no idea how the Egyptian military works, thinks, or what its major strategic interests are (aside from wanting nice toys to play with in the dessert and look cool while posturing towards Israel). Given that the US and Egypt have regularly conducted joint military exercises (the twice-yearly “Bright Star” exercises) the main point of which is to improve military-to-military relationships, this is embarrassing to put it mildly.

The mystery is intentional. All during the Mubarak regime, and possibly longer, and continuing to this day, the Egyptian military has encouraged the development of relationships with US counterparts, but only in so far as it benefits Egypt. Egyptian service members are forbidden to get too close to their American friends or to disclose anything that might give the US too much insight into their inner workings. There are ways the Intelligence Community could get around this, or course—it’s not an impenetrable black box of an operation—but for years the US was satisfied to work with Mubarak and assume that it was his will that mattered. That false assumption is now proving to be a problem. We’ll add it to the list.