x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Egypt must look past the military for its future

As Egypt's armed forces steadily drain the meaning out of the country's revolutionary change, the question becomes: how will the people react?

Back in the heady days of February, as millions of Egyptians waited for President Hosni Mubarak to leave office, the slogan chanted in Cairo's Tahrir Square was jubilantly optimistic: "The army and the people are in one hand!"

That view seems sadly quaint today, and optimism has waned as Egyptians adjust to the possibility that their revolution is evaporating before their eyes. The question now is what they will do about it.

Mr Mubarak wore a business suit but he had been an air force officer for 25 years. Indeed ever since the 1950s the hand in control of Egypt has been composed of the president and the army, with little role for "the people." Now the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), in theory the guardian of the revolution, is systematically placing obstacles ahead of anticipated parliamentary and presidential elections.

This week the SCAF declared that it will give up power only after parliamentary voting, creation of a constitutional assembly, adoption of a new constitution and a presidential election. All this will take at least a year if not longer - and will leave the military to oversee the writing of a constitution.

Egypt's armed forces are a powerful fortress of an institution, bulwarked with enormous financial and political resources. The army has maintained itself over the decades largely by proclaiming itself to be Egypt's guardian against enemies inside and outside. Many now say the military has benefited from trouble between the majority and Egypt's eight million Coptic Christians by asserting that only military control can stifle sectarian bloodshed. But after last week, when soldiers killed two dozen Coptic demonstrators, the SCAF banned any civilian inquiry into the deaths, raising suspicions (despite issue a degree on Saturday banning all forms of discrimination).

Despite growing evidence of the army's leanings, Egyptians appear to be taking a great interest in the elections, the first of which begin late next month. The army may regard the current political ferment as little more than a chance for the public to let off steam. But it remains to be seen how Egyptians, so hopeful just eight months ago, will react to the stealth counter-revolution. If anything can ever unite Egypt's democracy-minded liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, this could be it.

As things stand, however, it seems clear that the hand which marks the ballot will not be the one which truly rules Egypt anytime soon.