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This week’s press roundup returns to Egypt and the constantly changing situation there. Months ago, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces promised to handover power to a civilian administration by July 1.
That date is rapidly approaching, and yet the power of the Egyptian army only appears to have increased following the dissolution of the parliament earlier in the week. But opposition, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, has attempted to counter the entrenchment of military power in Egypt.
On Sunday, on the eve of the presidential run-off, the council of military generals issued the “constitutional annex,” outlining the extremely curtailed powers of the president. Nevertheless, both Ahmed Shafiq and Muhammad Morsi have campaigned hard for the job of president, as though there were any real power left in that post. Al Jazeera reported the new power arrangement in Egypt as such:
The new president will take office amid great political uncertainty.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt’s military rulers, added to the confusion on Sunday night, when they released their long-awaited “constitutional annex”, a decree outlining the powers of the new president.
Those powers are quite limited: He may declare war, for example, only after seeking SCAF’s approval. The decree also reminds the president that he can call on the military to quell “unrest” inside the country.
SCAF dissolved parliament last week following a ruling by the supreme court, which found the legislature unconstitutional. The court ruled that provisions of the electoral law – which allowed political parties to compete for seats reserved for independent candidates – violated the constitution.
With the legislature gone, the generals reasserted control over the legislative process, and over the country’s budget.
The Muslim Brotherhood was quick to condemn the decree, calling it “null and unconstitutional” in a brief statement on Twitter. Asked about the decree during the group’s press conference, Ahmed Abdel-Atti, Morsi’s campaign co-ordinator, said he expected “popular action” against it in the near future.
Neither of the two contestants for the Egyptian presidency impressed The Economist. According to the publication, both candidates were men of extremes – neither Shafiq nor Morsi were candidates the magazine had hoped would run.
The likely choice of candidates in the run-off on June 16th and 17th to decide who will be Egypt’s next president is not what The Economist had hoped for. That is hardly surprising, since we incline towards liberalism, and the Arab spring has not fostered it in the Arab world’s biggest country.
Amr Moussa, the diplomat we supported in the first round, was trounced, and Egyptians now have a wretched choice between Muhammad Morsi, a dreary Muslim Brother who narrowly won the first round, and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air-force chief and standard-bearer for the Mubarak old guard.
Even now the contest is plagued by uncertainty. As we went to press, the supreme court was due to rule on whether to exclude Mr Shafiq from the run-off because of his role in the old regime. Such a chaotic debut for democracy would tempt ordinary Egyptians to pine for the brutal certitudes of Mr Mubarak’s rule. Better that the vote take place-and that Mr Morsi, the Muslim Brother, become president of the Arab world’s biggest country.
If there were a decent secular candidate, we would vote for him. But Mr Shafiq, whose mantra is a call for stability and a crackdown on crime, would be a throwback to repression. He was Mr Mubarak’s last prime minister, and is unrepentant about the sins of the past government. Mr Shafiq seeks to defend what is known as the “deep state”: the military and security establishment that has clung to power since Mr Mubarak’s fall. Since then Egyptians in uniform have continued to abuse their powers and spit on human rights.
Mr. Shafiq’s campaign has been incompetent. He has espoused crassly populist policies, promising to cancel the debts of farmers. He has spread fear, insinuating that charities are foreign agents and that Islamists will create a bullying Iranian-style revolutionary guard. His desire to shut the Islamists out of power, whatever the popular will, is alarming. Experience shows that forcing them underground only adds to their mystique and saves them from the responsibilities of office.
It is unfortunate that after all the hope and anguish of the past 18 months Egyptians are presented with a choice between the deep state and the Brotherhood. Yet it does not mean that the revolution has failed. Under Mr Mubarak, the country was suffocating. Egyptians now can at least say what they want and vote for whomever they like. If they opt for Mr Morsi and the Brothers, they face a future full of risks. But that is better than a return to the oppressive past under Mr Shafiq.
Reuters, meanwhile, reported that the Muslim Brotherhood was not planning on changing the military’s decision to dissolve the parliament through acts of violence as had occurred in Algeria following the electoral victory of Islamic Salvation Front in 1992.
Egypt’s generals have set political rules that could keep the army in power for years, one of their senior Islamist opponents warned on Wednesday, but the Muslim Brotherhood will not fight back in the way that plunged Algeria into bloody civil war.
Saad al-Katatni, speaker of the short-lived democratic parliament dissolved by the ruling military council last week, told Reuters that the opponents of army rule in Egypt had no weapons and only “legal and popular” means at their disposal.
“What happened in Algeria cannot be repeated in Egypt,” said Katatni, rejecting comparisons with the conflict that erupted 20 years ago when a military-backed government blocked another Islamist group’s ascent to power through the ballot box. Some 150,000 or more Algerians were killed during the 1990s.
“The Egyptian people are different and not armed,” Katatni, a 61-year-old microbiologist, said in his first interview since the Islamist-dominated legislature was dissolved after a court ruled procedures in its election were unconstitutional.
“We are fighting a legal struggle via the establishment and a popular struggle in the streets,” he said. “This is the ceiling. I see the continuation of the struggle in this way.”
He demanded the army recognize democracy but also offered conciliatory words: “Everyone must submit to popular will,” said Katatni, who was elected by fellow lawmakers in January to preside over Egypt’s first freely elected parliament in decades.
The latest twists in Egypt’s messy transition from Hosni Mubarak’s rule has plunged the country into a new bout of political instability just as Egyptians had hoped the election of a new president would mark the start of a new era.
Instead, the generals and the Brotherhood appear at opposite ends of a power struggle defined in ever more dramatic terms. Yet the prospect of violence seems, for now, a remote one.
Writing an opinion piece for The Daily Star, Rami Khouri, a commentator on the region for the past two decades, sharply criticized the actions of the military commanders in the past weeks, saying they have succumbed to the idea that only they know what is best for their people.
The power grab in the past week by the Egyptian military and the lingering Mubarak-era establishment, operating through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is such a blatant attempt to prevent a truly democratic and republican system of government from taking root in the country that it cannot possibly succeed. It will generate tremendous counter forces in society from tens of millions of ordinary and politicized Egyptians, who insist on achieving the promise of the January 2011 revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, and ushered in a slow transition to a more democratic system of governance.
SCAF and its Mubarak-era allies managed within a few days to go against the two strongest sentiments that have driven ordinary Egyptians for the past 18 months: first, the desire to see the old guard that tormented the citizenry through authoritarian abuse of power held accountable, punished and kept out of power in the new democratic Egypt; and second, the desire to see the military establishment oversee an orderly transition by turning over power to an elected, legitimate president and parliament.
SCAF’s old generals and colonels sharply offended and provoked much of the population by heavy-handedly trying to keep the legitimately elected Muslim Brotherhood out of power in both the Parliament and the presidency. The armed forces signaled that they would only turn over some powers to a civilian establishment, while retaining most powers for themselves, and for good measure keeping control of the process of writing a new Constitution.
The military council has succumbed to the same disease that is challenging, and in places bringing down, dictators and authoritarian military rulers across the Arab world: its members believe that only they know what is best for the people of Egypt, and they alone will determine how political power and decision-making authority are dispersed in the country.
Reporting for The Guardian, David Hearst said the recent moves of the Egyptian military might have an uncalculated effect on the elections. Dissolving parliament among other actions recently undertaken by the military might increase opposition to the military establishment and its favoured candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. Their actions over the past week have amounted to “a counter-revolution in all but name.”
On Thursday, two days before voting in the second round of the presidential elections, the army and the old regime showed their hand by getting the judges they appointed to the constitutional court to declare the parliamentary elections – won overwhelmingly by the Muslim Brotherhood – null and void. The court went further and ordered parliament’s dissolution, even though it may not have the power to do that.
At a stroke, the gameplan of SCAF – the ruling military council – became clear for all to see. If parliament were dissolved, the constituent assembly drawing up the constitution would be abolished with it. If on Monday the army’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, is declared the winner, the old regime would have conducted a clean sweep of the revolution: the power to order new parliamentary elections, the power to rewrite the consitution and the presidency. A counter-revolution in all but name.
For some observers like the columnist Fahmi al-Huweidi, signs of the counter-coup were apparent before the constitutional court’s decision. “Journalists who were paid by the old regime and who had disappeared from the media for over a year suddenly began resurfacing with a barrage of articles saying why they were supporting Shafiq. Who gave them the courage to speak out like this? It would be have been impossible a few months ago.”
This is certainly not the last throw of the dice for the old regime, but the challenge is whether the rigging will be enough to tilt the balance in Shafiq’s favour. If it is, the military have been clearly warned by the brotherhood that they will return to the streets. Leftist and youth movement leaders who have been bitterly critical of the brothershood’s decision to contest the presidential election have also apparently now pledged their support for Morsi’s candidacy. The coup by the constitutional court may have had a galvanising effect on a split opposition movement, whose line until now was “a plague on both houses.”
Since the Muslim Brotherhood’s warning, protesters have returned to Tahrir Square, earning a sharp rebuke from the Egyptian military that claimed they were “stirring up emotions.”
While the fighting that raged in Tahrir Square during the height of the uprising last year was among the most crucial days of the revolution, the past week and the upcoming one are equally important.
While there are no men charging on horseback into unarmed protesters, the manipulation of Egypt’s judiciary and political power arrangement is endangering all the advances made under the revolution. This is a crucial time for the future of a democratic Egypt.
Saif Alnuweiri is a third-year journalism student studying at Northwestern University’s Qatar branch campus. He follows media and politics in the region, monitoring the course of the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings as well as global politics more broadly. He has written articles and also served as the news editor of the branch campus’ student publication, The Daily Q.