Calvinball in Cairo

The best guide to the chaos of Egyptian politics is Hobbes. No, not Thomas Hobbes -- Calvin and Hobbes. Analysts have been arguing since the revolution over whether to call what followed a transition to democracy, a soft coup, an uprising, or something else entirely. But over the last week it's become clear that Egyptians are in fact caught up in one great game of Calvinball.   

For those who don't remember Bill Watterson's game theory masterpiece, Calvinball is a game defined by the absence of rules -- or, rather, that the rules are made up as they go along. Calvinball sometimes resembles recognizable games such as football, but is quickly revealed to be something else entirely. The rules change in mid-play, as do the goals ("When I learned you were a spy, I switched goals. This is your goal and mine's hidden."), the identities of the players ("I'm actually a badminton player disguised as a double-agent football player!") and the nature of the competition ("I want you to cross my goal. The points will go to your team, which is really my team!"). The only permanent rule is that the game is never played the same way twice. Is there any better analogy for Egypt's current state of play?

As in Calvinball, the one constant in Cairo's trainwreck of a transition seems to be the constantly changing rules and absolute institutional uncertainty. Prior to the first round of the presidential election, several key candidates were disqualified on questionable grounds. Efforts to form a constitutional assembly before the presidential election failed, then succeeded, then failed again. Just before the presidential election, the Supreme Constitutional Court declared the parliamentary election law unconstitutional, leading to the dissolution of Egypt's first freely elected parliament. But the parliament's speaker rejected the ruling, declaring that he would convene a session anyway.

Then, in the midst of the presidential election, the SCAF unilaterally issued a constitutional amendment annex greatly expanding its own power and limiting that of the incoming president. Whoever wins, the powers of the presidency have been radically constrained, while the SCAF has granted itself legislative power (!) and more or less total immunity from any civilian oversight. This rather strips the promised transfer of power to civilian rule of its significance, while falling far short of establishing a legitimate, consensus set of rules of the road for Egyptian politics. Small wonder everyone quickly labeled it a coup, soft or otherwise. But then, in a defensive press conference today, SCAF representatives defended their democratic commitments with explanations which seemed to contradict the text of their own constitutional amendment annex. 

Then, just as the fix seemed in for the old regime's candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, the campaign of his Muslim Brotherhood rival Mohamed Morsi claimed a smashing victory based on the tallies of its observers in all Egyptian voting booths. But the Shafiq campaign disagrees, and official results may not be announced until Thursday, leaving plenty of time for this to change. The interpretation of the constitutional annex -- by the SCAF, by the judiciary, and by all political trends -- will likely change depending on the outcome of the election. In the next few days, a parliament might or might not seat itself, the new president might or might not be empowered, a new constitutional assembly might or might not be formed. And tomorrow, another of Egypt's endlessly inventive judges may declare the Muslim Brotherhood itself illegal. 

But here's the thing -- Calvin doesn't always win at Calvinball. Players succeed by responding quickly and creatively to the constantly changing conditions. Hobbes plays brilliantly, as one might expect. But even Rosalyn, the dread babysitter, figures out the rules lurking within the absence of rules and has Calvin running from water balloons before he knows it.  

In other words, Watterson's game theoretic analysis suggests that Calvinball's absence of rules does not automatically bestow victory on Calvin. The game is going to continue for a long time, at least until the players finally settle on some more stable rules which command general legitimacy. Perhaps the SCAF might not automatically dominate SCAFball?

And with that, it's back to scanning all available news sources for the latest twists and turns in Egypt's high stakes game of Calvinball. Who says game theory isn't relevant to real world politics? 

Note:  all images courtesy of dedicated Calvin and Hobbes fans, and all rights reserved to the legendary Bill Watterson. 

Marc Lynch

That's It For Egypt's So-Called Transition

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...