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Machiavelli, Meet Egypt's Military Brass

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You've got to hand it to Egypt's top military brass, collectively known as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). They quickly filled the political vacuum produced when the Egyptian version of the Arab Spring ended the 30-year rule of strongman Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Since then the generals (okay, there's also a vice admiral and an air marshal) have manipulated the political process with a cunning that would evoke the admiration of Machiavelli.

Actually the military leaders' savvy was apparent even during Mubarak's last days as president. The generals first stood by their boss against the protesters but threw him overboard once they realized that Egyptians had turned against him irrevocably, that the crowds couldn't be cowed by shows of force, and that nothing short of bloodbath (assuming the regime would be left standing after that) could save him.

Better to let Egyptians think that the military was their friend and to relegate Mubarak to history.

Having done that, the SCAF decided that the best way forward would be allow a political process that met the popular demand for a transition to democracy but to calibrate it from behind the scenes in ways that would safeguard the military's political power and vast economic empire.

So far, the SCAF has been adept at playing this game, while also staying out of the limelight.

The generals' opening move was prompted by the shock they received this April when the results of the parliamentary elections were announced. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the far more radical Al Nour Party of the Salafists together won 70 percent of the 508 seats -- 45 percent went to the Brotherhood, 25 percent to the Salafists.

This confirmed the SCAF's main fear, which always has been that the main threat created by Mubarak's fall and the subsequent democratic tide is that the Brotherhood, highly organized and with a massive following, would eventually take control of the levers of power -- and through the ballot box.

To clip the Islamists' wings, the SCAF-appointed Election Commission ruled, for reasons few found persuasive, that 10 candidates were ineligible to run in the presidential elections scheduled for May of this year. They included Mubarak's last vice president, and before that long-time head of the intelligence services, Omar Suleiman, and the democratic and human rights activist, Ayman Nour, who had been imprisoned for having the temerity to run against Mubarak in 2005.

But the SCAF's main purpose in orchestrating the ban was to quash the candidacy of Khairat al-Shater, the Brotherhood's presidential choice; he would have been a formidable campaigner. They may have also wished to shut out the Salafists' presidential pick, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, even though he was seen as a long shot. The banning of Suleiman, a man close to the SCAF by virtue of his career, was obviously meant to make the judgment appear evenhanded.

The ban evoked widespread indignation, especially from the Islamists. But the SCAF calculated that the Brotherhood would eventually swallow the verdict, fearing that summoning their followers to the streets might merely confirm the fear of those segments of Egyptian society -- especially Coptic Christians, the secularists among the urban middle class (particularly women), the officer corps, the intelligence apparatus, and the upper reaches of the ancien regime's bureaucracy -- who worry about an Egypt run by Islamists.

The Brotherhood's leadership has been determined not to engage in a test of strength with the SCAF; and so they replaced Shater with Muhammad Morsi, a distinctly less charismatic candidate.

None of the contenders in the May presidential poll gained enough votes to claim victory. That set the stage for a runoff vote -- which will be held this weekend -- between Morsi and Ahmed Shafik. Shafik, a former head of the Egyptian air force, served as prime minister in the twilight of Mubarak's rule and for nine years as Minister for Civil Aviation before that. He would make a perfectly suitable president from the SCAF's standpoint and has campaigned as the law-and-order candidate who can prevent the Brotherhood from capturing the presidency.

Now, just as the second round of the presidential race is about to begin, the SCAF has made its second move. And a bold one it is.

On Thursday, the Constitutional Court, packed with Mubarak appointees, and thus a body politically in step with the generals, ruled on two controversial petitions. The first challenged, on procedural bases, the legitimacy of roughly a third of the parliamentary seats. The second disputed Shafik's right to run, on the grounds that the parliament had deemed Mubarak-era officials ineligible. The judges certified Shafik's eligibility but also went far beyond what was expected, ruling that the entire parliamentary election invalid. Egyptians will now have to vote for a parliament all over again.

The Court's verdict plainly bears the SCAF's fingerprints but also gives it plausible deniability.

This, then, is a continuation of the SCAF's artful manipulation -- one might even say hijacking -- of Egypt's democratic transition, and in two ways.

First, the Court's ruling keeps Shafik in the running. That's important to the generals: they want to prevent Morsi from becoming president, and Shafik has emerged as a strong candidate. Second, it opens up the possibility that the accumulating apprehension about the Brotherhood (and the Salafists) could give them a smaller representation in the next parliament. That's important to the SCAF, not least because the parliament is charged with drafting the new constitution.

The Court's ruling on Shafik won't produce much outrage. But its nullification of the parliamentary vote will. The SCAF knew that it would, but it's calculating that the Brotherhood's leaders will have a tough call to make.

Do they mobilize their supporters and bring them onto the streets and challenge the generals, counting on the public to stand with them? Or do they play it cool and avoid falling into a trap, reasoning that generals may be hoping for a showdown so that they can portray the Brotherhood as extremists and order a crackdown in the expectation that Egyptians have tired of revolution and yearn for normalcy and stability? If they make the latter choice they must take into account that they may not do as well in the new parliamentary vote as they did this spring.

So the SCAF has made another wily move. But it has also placed a big bet. The generals could get away with their latest gambit. Alternatively, given the anger ignited by the Court's decision on the parliamentary vote, they may have inaugurated another round of upheaval in Egypt, just as the country heads for the polls. Stay tuned.