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 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Egyptian protester in gas mask 370
(photo credit: 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 continue.
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 unclear.
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 coup.
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.”
The latest 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.
Abdoul Fotouh 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 means.
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.
Ahmed Shafik, 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.