Egypt army moves to secure key role in country's future

General's call for military to protect Egypt from "whims" of future president prompts outcry by critics over Islamist influence in gov't.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R) (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders 311 (R)
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
The military establishment running Egypt’s interim regime is discreetly moving to ensure that the army retains its influence over Cairo’s post-revolutionary government – leading some who welcomed former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster to question whether Egypt can break free from the iron grip the military has kept over the country for most of its modern history.
Bowing to popular pressure, the Supreme Military Council announced last week that it would draft a set of guidelines for writing a new constitution after national elections, originally scheduled for September but which could be held as late as November.
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The move was prompted by widespread concerns of Islamist influence over the constitution. But critics say the army’s domination of the drafting process – and its deepening ties with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood – is itself cause for concern.
“The militarist rulers made a deal with Islamists that they would release some of their prisoners and empower their voice, so that they would in return ensure that militarists keep being above the law, ever since [the] 1952 coup,” an Egyptian who blogs under the name Kefaya Punk told The Jerusalem Post by email.
Egypt’s military leaders have enjoyed nearly unchallenged power since the 1952 coup against the British-backed monarchy.
The Associated Press quoted Maj.-Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of the council that is leading the constitution-drafting process, as saying this week that the country’s next constitution should safeguard the army against the “whims” of a future president – in effect asking for the armed forces to be given virtually complete independence.
Hisham Bastawisi, a legal expert consulting for the military, went further, suggesting the army be vested with the role of “guaranteeing supra-constitutional principles.”
On Wednesday, a key member of the constitutional panel said most of its members oppose permitting the army a significant role in politics. Legal expert Tahany el-Gibali said the new constitution would have guarantees to protect all Egyptians while also safeguarding the civilian character of the state.
Still, democracy activists fear the worst.
“Forget about freedom if militarists aren’t held accountable for their actions,” said Kefaya Punk.
“Bastawisi’s suggestion won’t free us.”
On Tuesday, Gibali said that following elections, the parliament would appoint a 100-person panel to draft the official constitution, including 20 constitutional experts and 80 people representing various segments of the Egyptian population – including farmers, human rights activists, businesspeople and Islamists – in “equal proportions.” The Muslim Brotherhood opposed the move.
“The military in Egypt is unlike militaries in other countries where the military is isolated from the political life,” Gibali told The New York Times.
The armed forces continue to enjoy unparalleled prestige at home, due in large part to the damage they inflicted on Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
“The military’s legacy gives it a special credibility, and hence it is only normal that the military will share some of the responsibility in protecting the constitutional legitimacy and the civil state,” she said.
Unlike Egypt’s police, the military was largely spared the public’s wrath during the 18-day protests that forced Mubarak out on February 11. Since then, the public’s patience has been tested as military courts have been slow to pursue trials against the former president and administration officials, and Cairo’s central Tahrir Square has again filled with angry protesters demanding faster democratic reform.
Those protests are increasingly targeting the military itself. Last week, a coalition of 24 political groups and five presidential candidates threw their support behind an initiative to force the army to relinquish power to civilian authorities now rather than wait for national elections.