Egypt's Military Seeks Future Political Role

Egypt’s ruling generals are seeking to enshrine a future role for themselves with considerable independence from civilian leaders and possibly an authority to intervene in politics.

The push appears to be driven by the military’s fear of losing the near-autonomous power it has enjoyed for nearly 60 years, but activists worry it will open the door for the army to dictate politics in a democratic Egypt.

“We want the military’s role restricted to protecting our borders,” said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, who was among the young activists who organised the 18-day wave of protests that forced Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. “We have had enough of the military. We want it back in the barracks.”

Last week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body of generals that has ruled the country since Mubarak’s Feb. 11 fall, announced it would put together a set of guidelines for a new constitution that is to be written after elections planned for later this year.

That in part was in response to demands by some protesters who worry about the potential influence of Islamists over the writing of the constitution.

But it also raised concerns because of the military’s domination over the process of setting the guidelines, combined with signals by generals on the council that they want to carve out an exclusive, untouchable role for the military.

Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, a key member of the military council who is leading the process for drawing up the guidelines, said in comments published recently that the country’s next constitution should safeguard the armed forces against the “whims” of any future president, practically asking for the armed forces to be given virtually complete independence.

One of the legal experts that the military is consulting in the process, Hisham Bastawisi, has gone further, proposing that the military in the future have the role of “guaranteeing supra-constitutional principles.” In his formulation, that would appear to mean powers to intervene to protect basic democratic rights.

But some fear that could give the generals a tool for imposing its will at a time when the country is trying to move toward democratic rule with civilians at the helm. Bastawisi, who has announced his intention to run for president, also proposed extensive independence for the military, including immunity from parliamentary scrutiny of its budgets and prohibitions on passing laws affecting the military without the generals’ approval.

The “protector” idea would appear to give the military a role similar to that in Turkey, where the army has carried out several coups or otherwise intervened in the elected government over past decades to enforce the secular nature of the state. It did this even without a mandate in the Turkish constitution, instead relying on its own internal law that empowers it to defend the nation against “external and internal threats.”

“Any political role for the military will hurt democracy,” said Mustafa el-Naggar, an activist and founding member of Egypt’s new Justice Party. “The only guarantor of democracy should be the people not anyone else.”

Bastawisi’s is one of several proposals being considered by the council. The generals are to distill the proposals and arrive at a declaration that would supersede the next constitution or serve as the introduction of that charter.

The military’s moves appear to be an attempt to wrest back its place as the ultimate source of power, which is deeply threatened by the uprising against Mubarak.

The generals took power after Mubarak’s fall, but they also lost much of the legitimacy they long had to justify their behind-the-scenes domination of the country. The military has been the most powerful institution in Egypt since army officers toppled the monarchy in a 1952 coup, giving the country its four presidents since and wielding significant influence and economic power since.

The military has over the years enjoyed perks and privileges that no other institution in Egypt had. It has ventured into business in recent years, winning lucrative government contracts for the construction of dams, roads and even seaside resorts. Retired generals are routinely given well paid government jobs.

Reflecting the army’s importance, the head of US Central Command, Marine Gen. James Mattis, met Tuesday with the council’s head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and its chief of staff, Lieutenant General Sami Hafiz Anan, to discuss military co-operation and other issues, Egyptian state media reported. The US Embassy in Cairo confirmed the visit but gave no further details.

But the army’s so-called “1952 legitimacy” has been taken over by the “January Revolution” which was launched on the principle of government by the will of the people and which, unlike the officers’ coup 59 years ago, was a popular uprising in which millions of Egyptians took part.

The military, sour over its loss of prestige, is fighting back. Increasingly, generals on the council have tried to present themselves as a key part of the uprising, rather than subordinate to it.

“The military council is a full partner in the January revolution and not a representative of the people in the revolution,” Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Rueini said on a TV talk show last week.

The generals have been pushing that same message on Egypt’s rapidly multiplying TV talk shows, phoning in to defend their record in handling the nation’s bumpy transition to civilian rule. They often drum up the notion that they had stood up to the wealthy businessmen associated with the regime, when their interests clashed with those of the nation, and that they had protected the protesters of the January and February uprising from the brutality of Mubarak’s security forces.

The military’s direct involvement in politics began on January 28 when Mubarak called out troops to restore law and order in Cairo and across much of the nation following deadly clashes between protesters and security forces earlier that day.

The troops were warmly greeted by the protesters as saviours and allies in the campaign to force Mubarak out. The military, on its part, won the protesters’ support by declaring that it would not open fire at any of them. Chants of “the army and the people are one hand” rang out for days at Tahrir Square – though there were also occasions when the military stood by while Mubarak supporters attacked protesters.

Lately, the ruling generals have come under heavy criticism by the protesters.

“Down with the junta,” several banners declare at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising and now home to a nearly two-week-old, sit-in to press the generals to speed up reforms, bringing Mubarak and stalwarts of his regime to justice as well as weed out loyalists of the former president from the police force, the judiciary and the civil service. “The junta is not different from Mubarak,” says another Tahrir banner