by Ayman Ahmed (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 9, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1432)
Unease and concerns have escalated among political activists in Egypt following announcement by two top generals that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) intends to remain in firm control even after election of the People’s Assembly.
Unease and concerns have escalated among political activists in Egypt following announcement by two top generals that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) intends to remain in firm control even after election of the People’s Assembly. This was the clearest declaration yet from the military since taking over power from the dictator Hosni Mubarak who was forced to resign on February 11, 2011 after weeks of mass protests. According to the generals, the assembly will remain in a subordinate role and the military council will appoint the prime minister and the cabinet. This was also the case under Mubarak and political activists are questioning whether anything has changed in Egypt despite their offering great sacrifices.
“We will keep the power until we have a president,” Major General Mahmoud Hegazy announced at a press conference in Cairo on October 13. The announcement followed a serious escalation in military-perpetrated violence against the Coptic Christian minority in which 25 people were killed, some of them crushed to death by army vehicles on October 9. Why this blood bath was necessary has not been explained by the military but political observers say it was a deliberate attempt by elements in the military to create mayhem to justify their continued hold on power. No military officer has resigned in the aftermath of the mayhem; instead, Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who also held the title of deputy prime minister, resigned two days later on October 11 over what he said was “the government’s failure… to provide security,” to the people, which is its main responsibility. Prime Minister Essam Sharaf also offered his resignation but the ruling military rejected it.
The military had pledged in formal communiqués last March to hold presidential elections by September. But the generals have changed their mind. More accurately, they revealed the plan they had harbored all along. They now say that the presidential election will come only after the election of a parliament, the formation of a constitutional assembly and the ratification of a new constitution — a process that could stretch well beyond 2013. Regrettably, a number of political parties, among them al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood), have also acquiesced in this extended process. This reflects both their lack of political courage as well as detachment from the aspirations of the people that yearn for fundamental change, not three years down the line, but now.
The dragged-out process will lead to the subversion of people’s rights for which they struggled so hard and sacrificed so much earlier this year, braving tear gas attacks as well as the regime’s thugs. In a revealing twist, the US is also backing this drawn-out process hoping this would enable it once more to influence domestic Egyptian politics via the military. Like other Muslim countries, the military in Egypt too acts as a Trojan Horse for Western penetration and manipulation. Since most Egyptian officers have been trained in the US, they have close personal links with their American counterparts. These links as well as American largesse to Egypt, the bulk of which is consumed by the military make these officers a soft target for US influence.
The military’s new transition plan to civilian rule after the drafting of a new constitution negates a core component of the referendum on a “constitutional declaration” that was passed last March. It goes further; the military has made clear it does not intend to relinquish power until a president is elected. Even that is doubtful. The pre-referendum agreement of last March had stipulated that the military would put in place democratic institutions and lift the 30-year-old emergency law under which people are arrested without trial. This was intended to enable the new lawmakers and other stakeholders to draft the constitution in an environment free of coercion or threat of arrest. But by unilaterally extending its mandate, the military has decided to preside over the constitutional process and ensure that its privileges, not the rights of the people, are protected.
The military’s new plan “is a violation of the constitutional declaration,” Tarek el-Bishry, the constitutional law expert who led the writing of that declaration, wrote in the newspaper al-Sharouk, last month. By nullifying the referendum provision, the military has lost its only source of legitimacy, he declared. Such legal niceties are hardly likely to deter the military from acting on its own plan: to hold on to power to ensure that its privileges remain sacrosanct regardless of the demands of the people.
People that arrogate to themselves the resources of state begin to assume that these are birthright entitlements. Like militaries elsewhere, the culture of entitlement is also deeply entrenched in the Egyptian militry. Not surprisingly, nearly 80% of all provincial governors are former military officers. They are also involved in business ventures and have become accustomed to a comfortable lifestyle.
It would be simplistic to assume that just because Mubarak has been driven from power that the system itself has been abolished or that the long-entrenched establishment is about to surrender authority. People ensconced in positions of power and authority for a long time dig their tentacles deep into the system and develop links that are used in such contingencies. They may temporarily retreat under public pressure but that is merely a tactic. They gradually claw their way back to power once the people’s anger has subsided somewhat. Despite some of the visible faces of the Mubarak regime having been removed from their posts and even put on trial, there are others carrying on, especially in the state bureaucracy and other services such as the police and the armed forces. They have institutional interests that they will not give up so easily.
Even Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who has presented a rather benign face of the military, projecting himself as a fatherly figure, came to Mubarak’s rescue. During hearings into determining whether Mubarak had ordered the security forces to shoot at unarmed demonstrators, Tantawi said he had not received any such orders from his former boss. This is disingenuous. Rulers do not usually order their security personnel to shoot people; they simply tell them to take care of the problem. That can be interpreted in many different ways but given the brutal nature of the Mubarak regime, any dimwit in the security establishment would have taken it to mean to use whatever force was necessary to crush the people. This is precisely what the police and the Interior Ministry thugs did. They shot and killed people and even crushed some under their vehicles to drive them off the streets. It would be interesting to hear what the military top brass might say to the question whether Mubarak ever asked them “not to shoot people” or “not to use lethal force” to crush them.
Despite showing deference to the military’s assertiveness and exposing their true intentions, some political leaders have started to speak out against its plans to stay in power. “No political party can trust the SCAF now,” said Emad Gad, an analyst at the state-financed al-Ahram research group and now an active member of the Social Democratic Party. “We are seeing the real face of the SCAF, after the lifting of the mask.”
Will such statements lead to a decision to confront the military and wrest power from their hands? It is highly unlikely. Some political figures have put forward the idea of offering the military “special rights” including immunity from prosecution in civilian courts, protection from oversight of their operations and budget, and a writ to intervene in political affairs in the name of protecting the “secular character” of the government. “It is an open secret” that carving out special powers is the main goal of the military, said Hossam Bahgat, executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The postponement of the handing over of power until after the presidential election, he said, was “a clear sign that the SCAF did not want a civilian president who under the current constitutional declaration would have power over the army for the first time since the 1952 revolution.” It is interesting to note that while the military has not lifted the state of emergency and insists on trying those arrested during the uprising in military courts, the civilians are eager to appease the military top brass by offering them a pass trial in civilian courts even if they indulge in corruption and other misdemeanors.
The military is able to show such brazen disregard for people’s rights because civilian leaders lack courage and are gripped by confusion. Initially, the secularists feared the rise of the Ikhwan far more than even the military did. The secularists viewed the September deadline stipulated in the military’s initial communiqué as too short. They urged the military to define its own role and powers in the new constitution without civilian input or influence. Further, the secularists said the military should retain broad autonomy and authority to intervene to protect the “secular” character of the state, much like the military in Turkey. In short, the secularists wanted Egypt to remain a military dictatorship. What kind of respect and commitment to democracy is that? It needs to be borne in mind that the secularists are closely aligned with the West and the latter never misses an opportunity to beat the drums of democracy.
The secularists’ appeal to the military to hang on to power was based on the fear that if elections were held according to the stipulated timeline, the Ikhwan would sweep the polls and draft a constitution that would take away the secularists’ privileges. Events have not only proved their fears misplaced but the Ikhwan too have shown little understanding of the political dynamics. By being overly cautious, they have lost a precious opportunity to shape the future of Egypt in accordance with the wishes and aspirations of the people.
The military’s deadly violence of October 9 against the Coptic protesters seems to have woken up most political actors in Egypt from their slumber. Some, like the secularists are beginning to have second thoughts about clinging to the military’s coat-tails while the Ikhwan raised objections about the new election schedule. The Freedom and Justice Party, which is now the political wing of the Ikhwan, urged the military council “to come back to the first vision it laid out, and which it changed without any known reasons, of holding the presidential elections without delay.”
In the absence of political pressure, such as renewed street protests, there is little likelihood the military would heed such a call. In the next few weeks all attention will be focused on the November 28 elections for the People’s Assembly. Once that is over, the next round of jockeying would be for selection of a committee to draft the constitution. There, too, the military is dictating terms. It has said it will impose certain diversity requirements on the membership of the committee. While diversity is not necessarily bad, under what authority, apart from the gun, does the military dictate such conditions? What if the new assembly is overwhelmingly dominated by the Ikhwan? What kind of diversity would the military demand and on what basis?