Egypt’s military guards its own power

CAIRO — Two weeks before parliamentary elections billed as a first big step toward democracy, there are new signs that the generals ruling Egypt are trying to steer the transition to preserve their vast political and economic power.

A widening circle of critics say that new proposals from Egypt’s ruling military council suggest that the generals are backing away from a pledge to quickly hand over authority to elected leaders. They note that guidelines put in place by the generals have prolonged the transition to democracy, allowing them to stay in place as de facto rulers until after presidential elections that could be held as late as 2013.

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The deceleration could allow the generals time to protect their vast commercial holdings, which extend from large tracts of prime real estate to water-bottling plants to factories that manufacture air-conditioning units. In recent proposals, the generals have pressed for rules that would forbid civilian oversight of the military budget and grant the military council, rather than a new parliament, the most influence in the writing of a new constitution.

Egyptians welcomed the military rulers as heroes nine months ago, when the army helped demonstrators bring to an end to the almost 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak, then pledged to yield to elected leaders as soon as possible.

But pro-democracy activists and prominent members of Egypt’s political elite are accusing the generals of trying to maintain a dominant hand in the country’s future, a role that the military has played here since Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952.

“They want to protect their own power and privileges. They have no notion of what democracy is about,” said Hani Shukrallah, editor of the English-language al-Ahram Online Web site. “They want a stable political system where they can keep their privileges, where they can exercise some power over the future of Egyptian policy as a whole.”

Used to the shadows

Even now, the extent of the military’s holdings in factories and other businesses remains so shrouded in secrecy that estimates vary widely, from 5 to 45 percent of Egypt’s economy. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which acts as the head of state under Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Mubarak-era defense minister, operates almost entirely in the shadows, announcing most decisions by Facebook.

U.S. officials have said they remain confident that the generals will eventually surrender power to a new Egyptian president. But Western diplomats and most experts here say it appears that the criticism of their actions has only prompted the military leaders to slow the pace of change and to act indecisively, sometimes reversing decisions after they are announced.

Their current role at the top of Egypt’s power structure has clearly been jarring for the historically reclusive generals, who, until the toppling of Mubarak, had always wielded influence behind the scenes. Beginning with Nasser, and continuing through Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, each of Egypt’s modern leaders has emerged from the officer corps and ruled as an autocrat backed by a powerful army.

With voting set to begin Nov. 28 and lasting through March, the coming parliamentary elections could be the first test of whether the military’s powers will be rolled back or will remain untouchable.

It remains unclear how much power an elected parliament will wield. For now, the military has made clear that it intends to retain the right to appoint the prime minister and cabinet and to control the budget, even after the new parliament is in place.

But those proposals have been condemned across Egypt’s activist political spectrum, most strongly by Islamist leaders. If adopted, they would allow the military to veto any portion of the constitution that it opposes and to disband a constitutional assembly chosen by parliament and appoint a new one if the assembly does not meet a six-month deadline. The proposals would also allow the military to exclude its budget from civilian oversight.

“The military has put its cards on the table and shown that it intends to maintain a lot of control, but to do so even more openly than it did in the past,” said Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There was never anything in writing that the military had total control of their own budget. Now they have put it in writing. It goes further than anything that happened before. They also made it very clear that they are going to control the process of writing the constitution.”

Broad public support

The Egyptian military is a notoriously change-averse institution, as U.S. diplomats noted in a 2008 cable from the embassy in Cairo that was made public by the group WikiLeaks. Tantawi, the military chief, was called “aged and change-resistant.” The same dispatch said he was opposed to economic and political reforms that would contribute to decentralization of power.

A desire to maintain a strong central government, presumably propped up by the military, is partly what drives the generals’ grasp for power in these uncertain times, analysts say. Advocates of that approach say that without generals at the helm, Egypt would plunge into lawlessness and economic collapse, a scenario that the military council appears to truly fear.

Even now, the army and its top commanders enjoy broad public support, regularly polling at the top in surveys on whom Egyptians trust most since Mubarak’s ouster. That has left critics in a delicate situation — trying to raise concern about military rule when most Egyptians are highly supportive of Egypt’s army and the generals seem reluctant to leave.

Though they are visibly uncomfortable in the spotlight, disentangling them from power could take years.

In addition to their quest for stability, the generals also seem determined to safeguard the economic perks they have amassed through decades of authoritarian rule, analysts say. The military’s expansive holdings have never been subject to domestic or international scrutiny, and the generals are loath to put them before the public now, according to the analysts. They want to lay the groundwork to protect their financial interests and become the guardians of Egypt’s political system before they pass the reins, said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.

“In a fully functioning democracy, they would be subjected to government control,” he said. “They do not want the development of oversight capacity that would impinge upon them. They don’t want democratization.’’

 
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