Egypt’s generals could retain major role in governance

July 17, 2011

The generals running Egypt ahead of fresh elections have begun to signal that they hope to maintain a key role as guarantors of secular rule after handing over power to a new head of state.

In a recent interview and in public statements, the generals have left no doubt that they see Islamist parties as a threat. Although they have promised to surrender power once a new president is elected, the generals have suggested that the current Supreme Council of the Armed Forces operate in the future as a check on Egyptian governments not deemed sufficiently secular.

One member of the council, Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin, recently recommended that under a new Egyptian constitution, the military be granted special status to keep it from being subordinate to the president, according to the independent Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm. Such an approach could put Egypt on a path toward resembling Turkey, whose democracy has been unsettled by tensions between a powerful, secular-minded military and politicians who reflect Islamist popular sentiment.

An interview with another general, a top adviser to the Supreme Council, offered a further glimpse into thinking within that body, which wields enormous clout but has operated mostly behind the scenes since assuming power in February after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak.

The general, who does public outreach and advises the council on strategic planning, would speak only on the condition of anonymity. “We want a model like Turkey, but we won’t force it,” he said. “Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn’t think democratically.”

Suspicions persist

The notion that the military could emerge as a guarantor of a secular state runs counter to a theory among secularists and leftists that the Supreme Council is allied with the organized and well-financed Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to make a strong showing in parliamentary elections scheduled for the fall. Some leftists and human rights activists have been suspicious of the military leadership and worried that the military wields too much control over the future of the state.

“This type of involvement is a double-edged sword, as it injects the military into the realm of governance and potentially interferes with the prerogatives of civilian governance, even if it ensures the viability of a civil state,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the Century Foundation. He added that the military leadership is probably divided over what type of future role it wants to play in Egyptian politics.

The head of the military council is Mubarak’s longtime defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. The military was the dominant force in Egypt under Mubarak and his two predecessors, and although the army played an instrumental role in pushing Mubarak from office, experts say the military chiefs seem to still be grappling with how to exercise their political clout. Military leaders have said they have no plans to hold on to power and would like to hand over authority as quickly as possible.

At the same time, however, military leaders have become the target of demonstrators who in February hailed them as heroes. Protesters squatting in Cairo’s Tahrir Square are calling for quicker trials for Mubarak-era officials and for police officers involved in the killing of demonstrators. They have criticized the military leaders for the slow pace of reforms and accuse them of failing to cleanse the government of Mubarak loyalists and continued human rights abuses. This kind of political pressure is new to generals accustomed to operating in a country where criticizing the military was long prohibited.

Gen. Tareq al-Mahdi, a member of the Supreme Council, was heckled with anti-military chants and booed out of Tahrir Square on Saturday when he tried to speak to protesters.

“Everyone thinks it’s just a button you press, but it’s so hard,” said the general who gave the interview, referring to the military leaders’ new roles as diplomats, heads of state, economists and legislators. Before the interview, he sat in his living room with a group of men and women who he said represented the voices from the square, to discuss the protests and explain to them “what’s best for the country,” he said. “We want to hand the authority over as soon as possible,” the general reassured them.

Struggling to govern

The idea of giving the military power to protect a secular state “suggests we may see repeated clashes between Islamists and the military in the coming years,” said Shadi Hamid, an Egypt expert at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “It’s not going to be healthy or positive for Egypt’s stability.”

But Osama Ghazali Harb, founder of the liberal Democratic Front Party, said he and others believe Islamists are a bigger threat than a powerful military. Harb said he favors constitutional changes that would give the army “a role in guaranteeing democratic stability in the country.”

The Supreme Council has struggled to keep its popularity while carrying out the work of governance, including drafting a budget, shaping legislation and deciding when to open the stock exchange.

For the first time, the generals have begun to appear on local talk shows. They make phone calls to party leaders, young people and human rights activists who they think hold sway with the public. But they also fall back on tough practices, such as threatening to interrogate journalists who criticize them, and they have convicted more than 7,000 civilians in hasty military tribunals on charges ranging from breaking curfew to rape.

“The reality is, we’re dealing with the highest elite of the old regime, and the most conservative, too,The Egyptian revolution should not be imitating the Turkish model,” said Ahmed Ragheb, a lawyer with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “This is not a democracy. This is a dictatorship. It will give the army the authority to remove any government they don’t like.”

Special correspondent Sulafeh Munzier al-Shami contributed to this report.

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