Washington Watch: Roadblocks on Egypt’s road to democracy
Growing violent protests in Egypt cast doubt as to whether Egypt's military rulers will hand over power after May presidential elections.
Egyptian protester in gas mask Photo: REUTERS
The increasingly violent protests in Egypt reflect a growing skepticism that the
ruling generals will actually turn over power to an elected civilian government
on July 1 as promised. Unlike early last year when the demonstrators were
predominantly liberal, secular and young, lately most protestors have been
Islamists. Earlier it seemed the Muslim Brotherhood and the military were
working together; today they are on opposite sides as the Islamists see
themselves on the brink of taking power.
Egypt’s first contested
presidential election begins on May 23 and the outcome is likely to have a
profound effect not only for Egypt but also for Israel and the United States.
Already the Islamists have won control of the parliament and dominate the
committee drafting the country’s new constitution.
The military controls
a vast economic empire that extends deep into the civilian sector and exercises
many other powers it is reluctant to surrender. It also has been a source of
stability, and it has supported the peace treaty with Israel. The leading
presidential contenders do not engender confidence that will
Nonetheless, the United States has been pressing the ruling
Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to keep its commitment to transfer
authority as promised, but the extent and timing of the turnover remains
The Obama administration briefly held up $1.3 billion in
military aid to Egypt to protest human rights abuses but released the funds on a
promise from the generals to turn over power on schedule. That $1.3b. goes to
buy weapons Egypt doesn’t need; the money could be better used to combat the
country’s rampant poverty and illiteracy.
In fact, US aid goes not to
help the Egyptian people but to buy off the Egyptian military. The military
remains the best hope of preventing an Islamist takeover with a swing toward
Iran, and the preservation of both strategic cooperation with the United States
and the peace treaty with Israel.
The administration has been holding
“low level” meetings with representatives of the Brotherhood, the country’s
largest and most powerful political movement, to try to persuade it to pursue a
pragmatic course of democracy, stable relations with Washington, peace with
Israel and to stay out of the Iranian orbit. For that Washington is willing to
pay $1.55b. a year in military and economic aid.
As I have written
before, with a military that has been in control since 1952 it is hard to see
SCAF surrendering much power, and it is still too early to tell whether what
Egypt has experienced for more than a year is a revolution or a military
The presidential candidates are being careful not to antagonize
military leaders, but there is a growing distrust as the Islamists in parliament
look for ways to curb their power, not unlike what happened in Turkey when
Islamists came to power there.
The front-runner is Amr Moussa, 75, the
rabidly anti-American, anti-Israel former head of the Arab League and Egyptian
foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak. He told a rally that the pleace treaty with
Israel is “dead and buried” and the Camp David Accords should be “consigned to
the shelves of history.”
If he becomes president he can make Mubarak’s
cold peace look warm and cuddly. He was the inspiration for an Egyptian pop song
with lyrics declaring, “I hate Israel but I love Amr Moussa.”
Al-Ahram newspaper poll, reported by Bloomberg news, shows Moussa at 39 percent
followed by Abdel Moneim Abdoul Fotouh at 24%. Both have dropped several points
recently while the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, has been
rising; he is fourth with 7%. Morsi, who has called Israelis “killers and
vampires,” is considered ideologically rigid.
If no one gets a majority
in this month’s voting there will be a runoff in mid-June.
is the candidate of the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party, which wants strict
implementation of Sharia law. He said he wants a constitution that reflects
Sharia but doesn’t want fundamentalism overriding civil liberties, whatever that
Only a year ago the Brotherhood was saying it wanted to be a minor
party and not take over power or responsibility for running the country. No
longer. It is the country’s largest and most powerful political organization and
considered ideologically intolerant and resistant to change; its Freedom and
Justice party won a plurality of the seats in parliament.
Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former air force commander, is running third
and gaining, with 17%. His opponents are saying a vote for him is a vote for
Mubarak and the generals.
Egypt’s presidential election is the next act
in a power struggle between the military and the Islamists, with the liberals
and the social media generation that went to Tahrir Square and brought down
Mubarak relegated to the sidelines.
Even if a strict Islamist is elected
president, most observers do not expect an immediate move to an Islamic republic
but a gradual program to extend Sharia and religious influence into schools, the
media, the courts, the military and other institutions.
US Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton has stressed the importance of Egypt “meeting its
obligations under its peace treaty with Israel,” and she has that billion-dollar
leverage. If she wavers, Congress will be happy to remind her, especially over
the next six months as Republicans hammer away at Obama for not being
sufficiently supportive of Israel.