Last week’s decision by Egypt’s military rulers to criminalize the kind of
protests and strikes that drove Hosni Mubarak from office makes one wonder
whether that country has just experienced a democratic revolution, or a military
coup that rode into power on the coattails of the popular uprising.
and expectations soared around the region with Mubarak’s departure after 30
years. But students, political activists, workers, doctors, lawyers and even
police who have been calling for better wages and working conditions are now
being told to shut up and go home.
A new law bans any protests or strikes
which the military feels might interfere with public or private
But what will happen if the people who demonstrated for
freedom in Tahrir Square and toppled a corrupt dictator in the hope of building
a free, democratic Egypt decide they’ve been duped? US Secretary of Defense
Robert Gates was dispatched to Cairo last week to urge the ruling Supreme
Military Council (SMC) not to rush ahead with promised elections, but to allow
time for secular political parties to organize, recruit candidates, debate
issues and let voters make informed decisions.
Washington is particularly
concerned that hasty elections will benefit the Muslim Brotherhood (the largest
and bestorganized political group) and remnants of Mubarak’s nowbanned National
Decades of dictatorship can’t be erased overnight, so
serious steps must be taken to convince the Egyptian people the SMC is serious
about turning over power.
That may not be easy, since the Egyptian army
is a full-blown military-industrial complex which controls a third of the
nation’s economy, according to The New York Times. It runs daycare centers and
beach resorts, and even makes “television sets, jeeps, washing machines, wooden
furniture and olive oil, as well as bottled water under a brand reportedly named
after a general’s daughter, Safi.”
And it employs conscripted labor, pays
no taxes, and discloses nothing to either the public or parliament. At the
moment it also openly runs the government. It is hard to imagine the army will
be willing to sacrifice all that for the sake of democracy. WikiLeaked cables
from the American embassy in Cairo show that Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein
Tantawi, head of the SMC, strongly believes in government control of prices and
production, rejects any move to a market-based economy, and opposes political
reform – convinced that such moves erode a central government’s power and lead
to social instability.
THE SMC announced this week that parliamentary
elections will be held in September, with a presidential vote coming at an
undecided later date. The military rulers also banned the formation of political
parties on religious, sectarian or geographical bases, but indicated that the
emergency laws in effect since 1981 would be lifted before the election. The
military council has promised to transfer power to the new civilian government
once a president is elected.
Frontrunner for president is the former
foreign minister and head of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, 75. His election could
mean a chill in relations with Washington, and might cause Israelis to look back
with nostalgia on their ‘cold peace’ under Mubarak.
Moussa was reportedly
fired as foreign minister in 2001, after a song called “I Hate Israel and I Love
Amr Moussa” became a big hit. His scathing criticism of the Jewish state is a
source of his “wide popularity,” the Associated Press
Nonetheless, he has said the peace treaty with Israel is a
reality and he would observe it. He doesn’t like the US very much, but has said
good relations with Washington are important.
On that, he will have the
backing of Marshall Tantawi and the army, which values the relationship – worth
billions of dollars annually in aid and arms – and understands it is linked to
honoring the peace treaty.
Another leading presidential candidate is
Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency,
who shares Moussa’s hostility toward Israel. He has the backing of the Muslim
Brotherhood, which has said it will not field its own
ElBaradei has praised Palestinian “resistance” – a euphemism
for terror – saying Israel “only understands the language of violence,” and has
endorsed suicide bombings of Jews as legitimate, according to Jeffrey Goldberg
of The Atlantic.
The army has said it will not run a candidate, but
Tantawi, a Soviet-trained general who led troops in three wars against Israel,
could simply decide to run as a civilian.
Whoever becomes Egypt’s next
president can be expected to observe the treaty with Israel, but keep the peace
frosty. Any attempt to break it will likely bring retribution from Congress and,
unlike those times when pro- Israel lobbyists tried to cut Egypt’s aid, this
time the Israeli embassy won’t be riding to Cairo’s rescue.
democracy run high, but how much Egyptians actually get will depend on how much
control the army is willing to surrender – and how much the people will let it
get away with.