Washington Watch: The next chapter in Egypt’s book

What if people who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, toppled a dictator in the hope of building a democratic Egypt decide they’ve been duped?

Egyptian honor guard in Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amel Pain/Pool)
Egyptian honor guard in Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amel Pain/Pool)
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.
Hopes 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 institutions.
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 Democratic Party.
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 reports.
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 candidate.
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.
Hopes for 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.