Analysis: Egypt - A house divided

The army cannot relinquish power because there is no one to take over.

New Egyptian PM Kamal Ganzouri meets Tantawi 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
New Egyptian PM Kamal Ganzouri meets Tantawi 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Three demonstrations held in Cairo on Friday reflect the disastrous political and social situation in Egypt 10 months after the toppling of Hosni Mubarak.
The first, in Tahrir Square, called on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to hand over its powers immediately to a civilian council.
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The second, in the Abassia district, wanted the military to keep on ruling till the transition period was over.
The third, organized by the Muslim Brothers (who were absent from the Tahrir demonstration) met at the al-Azhar Mosque under the banner of “Free al-Aksa” – and was an anti-Israel event.
The notions of dialogue and compromise are still foreign to an Egyptian society reeling after a very long period of living under a dictatorship.
The immediate blame is going to the SCAF, which did not try to create a dialogue between the various political forces and share with them the decision-making process. It kept its deliberations secret and issued without consultation laws which all parties opposed, such as forbidding strikes and trying so-called troublemakers in military courts (more than 12,000 civilians were sentenced by these courts).
Yet the SCAF has been conducting an uneasy dialogue with the Muslim Brothers from the day it took power, February 11, because it was convinced that they were the only significant factor in the political arena.
Senior officers believed that they could come to an understanding; they would help the Brothers form the new government after the elections, and they in turn would turn a blind eye to the close links between high ranking officers and the Mubarak regime. It is well known that former and present day officers hold at least a third of the Egyptian economy and may have been involved in corrupt deals.
This dialogue took place away from public scrutiny and led to a form of cooperation.
The army made a few changes to the constitution and the Brothers voted for these changes, together with members of the old regime. In the referendum carried out in March, the changes were approved by more than 77 percent of the voters.
Secular parties had opposed the changes, which they considered as far too minor and not significant; they wanted a whole new constitution drafted straight away. This led to an open rift between the religious and the secular parties.
In recent months, the Brothers refrained from participating in most of the demonstrations organized by the so-called youngsters of the revolution and the secular parties, since they were keen to see the elections held as scheduled, before the secular parties had time to get organized and gather wider popular support.
At some point the SCAF appeared to realize what should have been obvious from the first: the Muslim Brotherhood, having used it to gain power, intends to set up an Islamic regime and impose Shari’a law. It was something that high ranking officers could not accept. After all, during the Mubarak years, one of their tasks had been to fight the movement and to bar access to the army to its followers. The dialogue then came to a bloody end.
The present crisis started on Friday, November 18, following the mass demonstration organized by the Muslim Brothers to protest the so-called Aly Salmi memorandum drafted by the deputy prime minister of that name at the request of the SCAF.
This document set down binding rules for the future constitution. The army was to be considered the keeper of the constitution, be solely in charge of fixing its own budget and be free of parliamentary control and not subject to civil courts. This was of paramount importance since high ranking officers wanted to be sure they could not be tried for alleged or real corruption during the Mubarak regime.
This was going too far. In a rare show of unity, religious and secular parties were vocal in their opposition and demanded that the army recognize the supremacy of civil institutions as in any normal democracy: Wasn’t that the whole point of the revolution? Faced with this unified front and fearing renewed demonstrations, the army backed down; a new document was drafted, without most of the controversial provisions; it stated that the army was responsible to civilian authorities and that its function was to protect the country.
However, the article stipulating that a National Security Council headed by the president would be set up was not deleted; this council was to deal with all issues pertaining to the army – national security and budget included. It would have given the army the tools to prevent a Brotherhood takeover of Egypt.
Other articles were intended to protect basic human rights, thus putting another legal obstacle to the installation of an Islamic regime.
The Muslim Brothers and the Salafist parties saw this as an attempt to turn the army into the guardian of the country’s secular nature – similar to what Ataturk did in Turkey – and called for the mass demonstration which was held on Friday, November 18.
Secular parties did not want to join the fray. They are very much conflicted. On the one hand they are afraid that the Brothers will win the forthcoming elections and will try to set up an Islamic regime – but they do not want the army to have a special status. On the other hand they need the army which alone can prevent the establishment of an Islamic state – but they don’t want a military dictatorship.
The huge demonstration was held peacefully. However, the following morning youngsters and Salafists came back to Tahrir Square to demand the ousting of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, and violence broke out. The army decided on a show of force and ordered the police to drive the demonstrators from the square.
During the clashes, 40 people died and 3,000 were wounded.
No one had expected the bloody violence which exploded in Tahrir Square, leading to the resignation of the government, the ministers having wisely concluded that since there was nothing they could do, it was best to leave and not have to bear the responsibility for the dead and wounded.
The Muslim Brothers did not participate in the confrontation which they had started.
They also announced that they would not take part in the demonstration that the young protesters called for the following Friday.
Tantawi backed down again.
In a television address on Wednesday he announced that presidential elections would be advanced to June 2012, instead of sometime in 2013 according to the original schedule. He also said that he was about to form a new government which would be acceptable by the people.
The following day, on the eve of the Friday “March of a million,” dubbed the “last chance,” the SCAF announced the appointment of Kamal Ganzouri as prime minister.
This led to howls of protests from the Tahrir demonstrators.
The 78-year-old Ganzour, a seasoned politician and savvy economist, is a former prime minister and a man of the hated Mubarak regime (even though he resigned because of a conflict with Mubarak on economic policy). To defuse the situation, Ganzouri promised to form his new government through dialogue with all political forces and to include the young revolutionaries.
Now there is a stalemate. In Tahrir Square there are still many protesters declaring they do not want Ganzouri and will not go home until the SCAF turns over its powers to a civilian council. The Muslim Brothers and the secular parties no longer trust the SCAF, but understand that right now the choice is between the army and total anarchy; therefore they still call for the elections to take place on Monday.
In a bitterly divided Egypt, people are in a state of shock.
The political arena is split between secular, Islamists, young revolutionary and other political parties in a state of total confusion.
As for the army, it cannot relinquish power because there is no one to take over. There is talk of setting up a civilian presidential committee, or of handing the reins to the Supreme Court, but there is no consensus for either solution and it is hard to see how organizations which are not representative and which have no executive powers could maintain law and order while ensuring an orderly political process in the chaotic situation prevailing today.
It seems as if the army will have to stay on while keeping the elections on course, opening a frank dialogue with all political forces and drafting with them the longed-awaited new constitution.
Altogether, a seemingly impossible endeavor.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.