This weekend, a year and a half after Mubarak’s ouster was touted as the principal moment in the Arab Spring, a funny thing happened. The SCAF, who were initially hoped to be good stewards for the transition to democracy, decided that after a year of ruling they wanted to keep all the machinery of the system in their own hands. As Tom Gara put it:
Saying SCAF are realpolitik geniuses is like saying a guy is a video game master because he has the code that gives you unlimited lives. It’s not hard for your moves to seem effective when they are implemented by every state institution up to and including the supreme court.
The cheat code metaphor tells us a lot here: the SCAF appear to operate in a very constructed environment, and they do so with advantages not afforded to the opposition. Such controls, ideally, turns the situation from one of high uncertainty and difficulty into a challenge they can tackle with ease. In video games, this was first accomplished by the Konami Code:
The code was popularized by Contra, a side scrolling shooter/platformer where the main challenge was completing the game with only three lives. After the code was entered, the player had 30 lives, substantially reducing the difficulty. Upon first appearance, it seems that the SCAF as seized power in a similarly cheaty way, by pulling secret levers and making it easier for their guy to win the election.
Only I’m not entirely sure that is what happened. As I write this, the presidential election results are days away from being clear enough to call. Both the SCAF supported Shafik and the Muslim Brotherhood supported Morsi have claimed victory. If the SCAF was straightforwardly manipulating the game in favor of their candidate, they probably would not have suspended parliament or declared martial law. This is a different game, one altogether more strange and arbitrary than anything a computer can hope to win. Marc Lynch goes beyond my small video game domain to show us what the Egyptian election really is: 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?
There is only so much a person can do in a game with set rules, and usually when those rules are bent it is clear that the person bending them has been cheating. But when the very nature of the game requires changing the rules, the opposing player can only suffer from expecting the rules to be fair, and instead has no choice but to adapt just as quickly and innovate in ways the game master doesn’t expect. As coherent as Egyptian politics are right now, “up up down down left right left right B A” might work as well as anything.*
*Metaphor extended into meaninglessness.