Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Egypt: The dilemma of the military’s post-election role | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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With the exception of the first days of the revolution, the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] in Egypt continues to raise controversy even as the Egyptians go to the polls in the first genuine, democratic presidential elections in their recent history. Four issues are fuelling the controversy, and they are as follows:

The first issue is the state of constitutional ambiguity, whereby even after the Egyptians elect a president, his powers – and their limits – will still not be clearly defined, in light of the fact that the battle over the new constitution was not resolved and approved before the elections. This has kept the door wide open for disputes, will all the dangerous possibilities that may arise from that, given the ongoing tensions. Regardless of the identity of the new president, the battle of the constitution will be the most important and most dangerous issue in the post-election phase, and the president-elect, the parliament and the various revolutionary forces will all be in the line of fire amidst the potential confrontations that are set to take place, whilst this will be a battle that the army will also not be far away from.

The new president will inevitably play an important role in the constitution battle with all its ramifications and interventions, including the issue of the state’s relationship with the military and its role in the coming phase, and the issue of the state’s relationship with the legislative and legal authorities. This could initiate a power struggle, and indeed we’ve already seen aspects of this given the disputes between the elected parliament and SCAF about the government and about some laws and legislative authorities, and also during the formation and subsequent dissolution of the constituent assembly. In light of the anticipated contention surrounding the constitution, the eyes of many will be focused in the direction of the army, which has made no secret of its stance calling for a constitution that maintains Egypt as a civil state, a stance that places it at the heart of the battle ahead.

The second issue is the fear of Islamist hegemony, especially at a time when a new political era is being formed in Egypt, which some are calling “the second republic”. The stances of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis have contributed to increasing these fears, especially after the Brotherhood retracted its promise not to put forward a candidate for the presidential elections, even declaring their opposition to any Islamist candidate at one stage. This ultimately led to Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh splitting from their ranks for violating the Brotherhood’s decision not to run for the presidency, according to the group’s justifications for removing a man who was considered one of its most prominent leaders, although there are those who question whether the two sides have truly distanced themselves completely from one another, given the similarities in their programs and goals.

The Brotherhood revised their decision not to run for the presidency in a way that sparked a storm of criticism, by putting forward not one but two candidates, justifying this by saying that Freedom and Justice Party leader Mohammed Mursi was an alternative if Khairat al-Shater was not allowed to stand. This reflects the Brotherhood’s determination and plan to try and control all legislative and executive authorities, ignoring their former words that this would not be in the interest of Egypt under its current circumstances.

Likewise, the Islamists fuelled the fears of their domination with the way in which they formed the constitutional assembly, again leading to a storm of criticism that even came from al-Azhar. The matter ended with the assembly being dissolved and the battle surrounding it being postponed until after a new president is elected. If this president comes from the Islamist current (the Brotherhood are standing behind their candidate Mursi, while the Salafis have thrown their weight behind Aboul Fotouh) then the fears and accusations of Islamist hegemony will increase. If the new president comes from the liberal current, then he will face a difficult battle with the Islamists in parliament. In either case, the army will monitor the developments, particularly if the confrontations move onto the streets.

The third issue is the fear of a coup if political life is crippled, the economy remains disrupted, and security concerns continue in light of the inability to retrain or reorganize the police force to restore its role in ensuring security. The history of the region is full of coups being carried out against democratic experiences, and Egypt itself has lived under the rule of presidents from the military establishment ever since the coup carried out by the Free Officers movement in 1952.

There are also many forces working to abort the revolution in Egypt and contributing to the spread of instability, and perhaps they are hoping for and encouraging the coup scenario, which would represent a “deadly” strike to the Arab Spring that has been facing many obstacles after its initial rapid success in Tunisia and Egypt. In addition to this there is no reason why some within the Islamists ranks wouldn’t try to encourage a coup if they believed that their gains were being threatened, or if they saw a coup as a means to seize power or impose their project, and here the experience of the Islamists in Sudan springs to mind.

The fourth issue is the concern within the military establishment itself, which is seeking guarantees after it hands over power that its position will be maintained and there will be no adverse impact upon its status or capabilities. It has become clear to everyone that the army – which believes that it sided with the revolution and in doing so ensured its success, and then fulfilled its promise to organize fair elections until the handover of power – has specific demands: It wants its budget to remain confidential so that it is not discussed openly in parliament. It also wants to be granted the right to issue its opinion on any legislation that concerns it, and for its opinion to be taken into account when it comes to the appointment of the Minister of Defense. Furthermore, it wants an input in future arms deals, and is also seeking to preserve its economic institutions that guarantee its role, influence and large resources, and also contribute to the pensions of its retirees. In addition to this, SCAF hopes to obtain guarantees that its members will not be prosecuted, especially in light of the many accusations and controversies that have accompanied the transitional period, and the events and clashes we have witnessed.

Amidst all these intricacies, the subject of the military’s role and status remains among the most important issues in the upcoming stage, and – discounting the issue of the constitution – perhaps the most sensitive. For every person who talks about the army returning to its barracks and distancing itself from the political arena, there are many who believe that the army, despite all the problems and criticisms of the transitional period, remains the most cohesive institution in Egypt, enjoying respect and popularity among the majority of groups in society, and thus they believe it has a role in protecting the constitution, especially considering the talk about the Islamists’ hegemony.

The dilemma is how exactly to determine this role and draw boundaries so as to protect democracy from the encroachment of any party, including the military itself. Perhaps the solution is to draft a constitution outlining the role of the army in preventing military coups; as for constitutional coups, the task of preventing this falls within the remit of the judiciary.