Omar Ashour
Omar Ashour
Last updated: January 30, 2012
Omar Ashour: What do Egypt’s Generals Want?

"Egypt may become stuck in democratization’s slow lane, but there will be no U-turn"

Whatever the majority in the People’s Assembly, they are very welcome, because they won’t have the ability to impose anything that the people don’t want.” Thus declared General Mukhtar al-Mulla, a member of Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Al-Mulla’s message was that the Islamists’ victory in Egypt’s recent election gives them neither executive power nor control of the framing of a new constitution. But General Sami Anan, Chief of Staff and the SCAF’s deputy head, quickly countered that al-Mulla’s statement does not necessarily represent the official views of the Council.

So, one year after the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, who, exactly, will set Egypt’s political direction?

The electoral victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing and the Salafi parties, which together won more than 70% of the parliamentary seats, will give them strong influence over the transitional period and in drafting the constitution. But they are not alone. Aside from the Islamists, two other powerful actors will have their say: the “Tahrirists” and the generals.

Tahrir Square-based activism has not only brought about social and political change, but also has served as the ultimate tool of pro-democracy pressure on Egypt’s military rulers. Indeed, while the army, the most powerful of the three actors, still officially controls the country, there is little confidence in the generals’ commitment to democracy. “The SCAF are either anti-democratic….or some of their advisers told them that democracy is not in their best interest,” says Hazem Abd al-Azim, a nominee in the first post-Mubarak government.

If the generals do not want democracy, nor do they want direct military rule à la Augusto Pinochet. So, what do they want? Ideally, they would like to combine the Algerian army’s current power and the Turkish army’s legitimacy. This implies a parliament with limited powers, a weak presidency subordinate to the army, and constitutional prerogatives that legitimate the army’s intervention in politics.

The minimum that they insist on is reflected in statements by Generals al-Mulla, Mamdouh Shahim, Ismail Etman, and others. That would mean a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and vast economic empire, legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression, and constitutional prerogatives to guarantee these arrangements.

The new parliament and constitutional assembly will have to lead the negotiations with the SCAF. But, given that any successful democratic transition must include meaningful civilian control over the armed forces and the security apparatus, the SCAF’s minimum demands could render the process meaningless.

The veto in high politics would include any issues that touch on national security or sensitive foreign policy, most importantly the relationship with Israel. With an Islamist majority in the parliament promising to “revise” the peace agreement with Israel, tensions over foreign policy are likely to rise.

The independent military-commercial empire, which benefits from preferential customs and exchange rates, no taxation, land-confiscation rights, and an army of almost-free laborers (conscripted soldiers), is another thorny issue. With the Egyptian economy suffering, elected politicians might seek to improve conditions by moving against the military’s civilian assets – namely, by revising the preferential rates and imposing a form of taxation.

Immunity from prosecution is no less salient. “The Field-Marshal should be in jail now,” screamed the elected leftist MP, Abu Ezz al-Hariri, on the second day of the new parliamentary session. When Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson, proposed immunity (known in Egypt as the “safe-exit” option), he faced a wave of harsh criticism.

Pressure from the United States has also influenced the SCAF’s decision-making. “The military establishment receives $1.3 billion from the US….They are very sensitive to US requests,” according to Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who lobbied the Obama administration to support the revolution in January 2011.

But most of the SCAF’s pro-democracy decisions have come as a result of massive pressure from Tahrir Square. This includes the removal of Mubarak, his trial (and that of other regime figures), and bringing forward the presidential election from 2013 to June 2012.

Two other factors are equally, if not more, influential: the status quo inherited from the Mubarak era and the army’s internal cohesion. With few exceptions, the SCAF’s members benefited significantly from Mubarak’s regime. They will attempt to preserve as much of it as possible.

“The sight of officers in uniform protesting in Tahrir Square and speaking on Al Jazeera really worries the Field Marshal,” a former officer told me. And one way to maintain internal cohesion is to create “demons” – a lesson learned from the “dirty wars” in Algeria in the 1990’s and Argentina in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

In particular, Coptic protesters are an easy target against which to rally soldiers and officers. Last October, amid an unnecessary escalation of sectarian violence, state-owned television featured a hospitalized Egyptian soldier screaming, “The Copts killed my colleague!” The systematic demonization of the Tahririst groups, and the violent escalation that followed in November and December, served the same purpose.

Despite everything, democratic Egypt is not a romantic fantasy. A year ago, Saad al-Ketatni, the Muslim Brotherhood leader, would never have dreamed of being Speaker of Parliament. The same applies to the leftists and liberals who now hold around 20% of the parliament’s seats.

If 2011 witnessed the miracle of Mubarak’s removal, a brave parliament’s institutional assertiveness, coupled with non-institutional Tahririst pressure, could force the generals to accept a transfer of power to civilian rule (with some reserved domains for the army establishment) in 2012. What is certain is that this year will not witness a return to the conditions of 2010. Egypt may become stuck in democratization’s slow lane, but there will be no U-turn. The hundreds of thousands who marched to Tahrir Square on the revolution’s anniversary will guarantee that.

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