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Monday, July 18, 2011

Protesters seek to thwart Egyptian military designs

Demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square continue. One of the leaders of the army visited the sit-in, attempting to talk to the protesters. (Demotix Photo)

Demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square continue. One of the leaders of the army visited the sit-in, attempting to talk to the protesters. (Demotix Photo)
Five months into the revolt that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, political reality is setting in.

It is a reality that will play out differently wherever an autocratic leader is removed from power but one that is universally valid: the transition to democracy is as hard fought a process as the toppling of an autocrat and one that is littered with pitfalls.
Things looked very rosy on February 14, the day on which 18 days of mass anti-government protests persuaded the popular Egyptian military that it was time for Mr. Mubarak to go.

Few questioned the declared intention of the president’s successor, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces whose members are all former Mubarak loyalists, to lead the country to free and fair elections within six months and then return to the barracks.

Even fewer wondered whether the military had any other interest at heart than what was best for the country.

Five months later those illusions have been shattered. Egyptians are back on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to ensure that their revolt is not derailed. Increasingly it is dawning on many Egyptians that the military is as much part of the ancient regime as Mr. Mubarak was.

The protests in effect are designed to dash the military’s hopes that the revolutionary fervor in the country will die down and allow them to manage the transition in way in which they can retain their status and privileges.

Opinions on the square are divided. Some believe that the military still deserves the benefit of the doubt. A growing number however has come to view the military as a blessing in disguise. They demand the resignation of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council who doubles as defense minister.

When the council sent a senior officer, Major General Tarek el-Mahdi, on Saturday to the square to persuade some protesters to end a hunger strike, he was booed and had shoes shaken at him in a traditional expression of contempt. The officer, the first to visit the square since protesters again set up camp there more than a week ago, was forced to leave the square in a hurry.

Tension between the protesters and the military has been fuelled by the fact that the council has been slow to bring to trial members of the security forces suspected in the killing of nearly 900 activists during the uprising. As a result, justice for the families of those killed has become a rallying cry.

At stake is not only the slow pace of political and economic change, but also the way the military is handling it.

The council initially instructed a constitutional committee to leave the constitution largely intact, particularly with regard to the tens of articles that grant the president his powers.

The military announced this week that it would go a step further by adopting prior to elections a declaration of basic principles that would govern the drafting of a constitution.

The declaration would be designed to ensure that the defense budget would not be subject to public or parliamentary scrutiny. It would also give the military the right to interfere in politics to protect national unity and the secular character of the state.

This way the military hopes to ensure that Egypt’s next elected leader will have no choice but to keep the military’s interests at heart.

Elections would enable the military to return to its barracks but retain its grip on national security; maintain its direct, unsupervised relationship with the United States; be shielded against civilian oversight; and keep control of its economic empire. In effect, the military would continue to enjoy the status it had under Mr. Mubarak.

The military’s approach is in stark contrast to that of Tunisia, which rid itself of its autocratic leader a month earlier than Egypt did, and where a commission is discussing the best way to limit presidential power with a range of proposals ranging from a presidential to a parliamentary regime.

The tension between the protesters and the military threatens to rupture a key underpinning in Egypt’s transition from autocracy to a more open political system: the high level of public trust in the ability of the conservative, opaque military leadership to guide the country toward free and fair elections this fall. The erosion of that trust could well mean that the process will only become messier.

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