Egypt's generals have proposed new rules governing the constitution and risked a major backlash.
Egypt's generals risk stability for their self-interest
Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has an unlikely way of ushering in the country's long-awaited democracy.
Constitutional guidelines proposed last week by the military-appointed cabinet say the new constitution would be written by 100 people: 20 from the parliament to be elected between this month and next March, and 80 named by the generals. A president will not be elected until 2013, if then; until that vote, the Supreme Council plans to run the country, a new parliament notwithstanding.
The proposals also stipulate that any new constitution would ensure that only the generals would control, or even know the size of, the defence budget. And the military would be deemed the protector of constitutional legitimacy, meaning it could veto laws or even topple civilian leaders. There have also been trial balloons for a presidential candidacy by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the council.
The "revolution" that galvanised Egypt last February seems to be turning to water, compromised by the same generals who gave the final push to Hosni Mubarak. In many quarters there had been a tacit understanding that in return for supporting the revolution, the military's own record under the regime and extensive business holdings would be off limits to investigation. By trying to cement that deal in the constitution, the generals may have miscalculated.
The cabinet's efforts to build consensus quickly came under criticism from Islamists, from reformists such as Mohamed ElBaradei and also from many elements of the original Tahrir Square coalition. That is as much unity as has been seen since Mr Mubarak fell. Certainly many elements of the population, fired up by months of expectations, will be unwilling to back down.
The Supreme Council faces a fork in the road. It can enact these proposals unilaterally, which in theory would place the military permanently above any civilian government. In practice, it creates a permanent state of opposition to the military. Generals around the world are notoriously tone-deaf to public opinion, but the generals may realise that they have overreached.
Egyptians would do well to look to Tunisia, where Islamist and secularist parties are coming together to form a government following fair elections. Zied Doulatli, a senior member of the Ennahda party, explained the pragmatism: "Lack of public confidence could lead to a social explosion." The two countries have many differences, but they share the same choice: move towards civilian rule or further unrest.