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Egypt: Demonstrators Push to Reverse Army’s Power Grab

As the date approaches for Egypt’s first “free” elections in thirty years, tens of thousands of protesters gathered in the iconic Tahrir Square Friday to demand that the Army back off its proposal to give itself perpetual veto power over a new constitution and continued freedom from public scrutiny.

Egyptians will go to the polls on November 28 for the first of three rounds of Parliamentary elections. These will be followed early next year by the nation’s first “free” presidential election. In the past, until 2005, under the Mubarak regime, both parliamentary and presidential elections were tightly restricted to candidates from only one political party – Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), and universally criticized for widespread fraud and voter intimidation.

In 2005, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cancelled a trip to Egypt scheduled for the following week because of Egypt’s arrest and imprisonment of a leading candidate, Ayman Nour of the “Tomorrow” party. He was released in time to run for president in the election of 2005, where he gained slightly more than seven per cent of the vote. That was the first year that Egypt ever ran a multi-party election, after considerable pressure from the US and other countries. Nour was then not released from prison until 2009.

Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, Egypt has been ruled by the Army, through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a group of generals, plus a civilian government they appointed. The wide array of groups and parties that sparked the February revolution have been highly critical of the SCAF and its civilian puppets for a host of what they consider retrograde and anti-democratic actions.

These include dragging their feet on reforms such as lifting the so-called “emergency laws” that give the authorities license to arrest without cause, try civilians before military courts and convict and sentence defendants without lawyers or sufficient time to prepare adequate defenses. Some 12,000 people have been charged under military rules since the revolution began. The army’s military police have been criticized by most political actors for continuing the prisoner torture policies of the Mubarak regime.

Criticism of the armed forces is a crime under Egyptian law. It is being enforced by the SCAF and numerous journalists and bloggers have been tried before military courts and jailed for substantial prison terms under this Mubarak-era law.

Following the Parliamentary elections, a committee of Parliament will draft a new Constitution. Through its civilian government, the Army has recently proposed that a number of “supra-Constitutional” measures be adopted. SCAF wants the military’s budget shielded from scrutiny by Parliament and the public and SCAF to have veto-power over all military-related matters in the Constitution.

According to Agence France Presse (AFP), the Muslim Brotherhood and numerous other groups of various political persuasions spearheaded Friday’s Tahrir Square protests, united by the conviction that the military must transfer power to a civilian government as soon as possible.

The contested “extra Constitutional” document, presented by Deputy Prime Minister Ali Silmi, drew fire from virtually every quarter. He responded: “The army is the only guardian of Egypt at this difficult time.  Even if we disagree with some of their actions, it can be resolved through discussions and not through pressuring and threatening the military. Egypt, in some cases, is no more than masses and crowds.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, through its Freedom and Justice Party, may emerge as the largest bloc in the election, the first since the fall of Mubarak. In the 2005 election, the Brotherhood, though officially banned by the government as a political party, won about 20 per cent of the votes for parliament. Their candidates ran as “independents.”

The SCAF, which took charge after Mubarak’s ouster and suspended the Constitution and parliament, says it will hand over power once a new president is elected. Parliamentary elections will start on November 28 and are expected to end in March.

AFP reports that “chants were heard in Cairo and Alexandria comparing Chief Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the current head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), to ousted President Hosni Mubarak.”

In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, the majority political parties are participating in criticism of the SCAF. These include the April 6 Youth Movement, Salafi parties and many liberal and pro-democratic groups.

Marches have also been held from Tahrir to the Maspero (government) television station demanding investigations into the killing over more than 25 Coptic demonstrators last month. Coptic Christians, who comprise about ten per cent of Egypt’s 80 million people, have long complained of being discriminated against by Egypt’s Sunni government and majority Sunni population.

Another contentious issue in this pre-election period is whether former members of Mubarak’s NDP party would be eligible to run for seats in Parliament. Last week, Egypt’s Administrative court issued a verdict affirming their right to run.

Despite being widely blamed for corruption during the years of Mubarak’s rule, NDP members are still considered popular in some parts of Egypt and are considered difficult competitors.

AFP reports that the SCAF did not want suffer the consequences of excluding hundreds of thousands of Mubarak’s ruling party members or stand against the thousands of Ex-NDP members intending to run.

SCAF’s view is that it is now up to voters to determine if there is a place for the NDP in the next Parliament.

Egypt’s SCAF remains largely a mystery. It is totally opaque, as is its handpicked civilian “government.” All of its members were colleagues of Mubarak’s; some were proteges. These generals have become wealthy through property and other deals allegedly facilitated by the Mubarak regime.

Some see the SCAF scurrying to free itself of its governing job as soon as possible. It has no experience in governance. None of its generals have ever lived in a democratic society. Others see it as wanting to hang on to power even after the elections. Some believe SCAF sees itself as the only actor left capable of bringing peace and stability.

This perception is found throughout the developing world and is frequently true. Others contend that SCAF and its members have too much dirty laundry that would be hung out in public if real democracy ever came to Egypt. In a real democracy, the people would be free to criticize the armed forces and to question its budget in public.

The Egyptian military needs to be no more, no less, accountable than every other public asset. And its needs to be accountable to civilians, a concept understood by the country’s generals but never experienced in real life.

Accountability is among the lessons learned from Egypt’s continuing contact with the US military, which has been responsible for facilitating more than a billion dollars in military procurements annually. With that aid come other plums, such as visits to the US and accompanying senior US military officers as observers on field trips and war games.

But how well SCAF has learned the US lessons remains unclear. Everyday Egyptians aren’t much help here; they obviously can’t demand what they’ve never known. To get the generals to accept civilian rule and civilian rules will depend on those who were victorious in Tahrir Square rising to warn the country of the danger of continuing military rule or excessive military influence in the elected governments of the future.

That will be Arab Spring 2 point 0.

William Fisher has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America, Asia and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the international affairs area in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He began his working life as a reporter and bureau chief for the Daytona Beach News-Journal and the Associated Press in Florida. He now reports on a wide-range of issues for a number of online journals.

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