x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Egypt's quandary is whether a president can curb the army

Egypt faces a choice between a president too reliant on the army, and a prime minister too beholden to his party.

Egypt's first free presidential elections since independence have begun. Three days into registration and already the vote, scheduled for May, looks likely to be dominated by former military men and Islamists. Yet the presidential vote is only the beginning. There is, as yet, no consensus on what powers the president will have, and the answer will have profound repercussions for Egypt and its year-old revolution.

Following the presidential vote, a new constitution will be written. The task ahead of the drafters is to create a constitution that can serve Egypt well into the century. A constituent assembly will soon be convened to decide, among other things, the role of the president. In theory, the future head of Egypt's executive branch might not be the directly elected president, but a prime minister nominated by the party with the largest number of parliamentarians.

This is an essential dilemma facing the drafters of the new constitution. And while it might seem like an esoteric political point, it could have serious ramifications for Egypt's future.

Here's why. The recent parliamentary elections brought to power a legislature full of Islamists of various stripes. Liberals - to use a catch-all term - did not make the gains they had hoped for and activists who had fought for the revolution - not all of them liberals, by any means - felt they had broken down a door, only to see Islamists walk in ahead.

For them, a president rather than a prime minister as head of the executive could balance the power of Islamist parliamentarians. The army, too, favours a president, hoping to wield power behind the scenes and maintain its privileges. Having ruled outright since Hosni Mubarak fell, the army has no desire to see its decades-old powers curtailed. Moreover, the "deep state" - the web of links that cross military, political and economic lines - will fight hard to remain immune from public scrutiny.

The army is key to this. Many in Egypt suspect that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are aiming for a consensus presidential candidate, who would be amenable to both of their concerns.

Realistically, the army is not going anywhere. High-minded ideas about the generals returning to their barracks and leaving politics to the representatives of the people quite rapidly come up against the reality of modern Egypt. The army, with its close links to US patronage, will play a role in Egyptian political life for some time to come. Whoever rules in Cairo will have to contend with their influence, even if they work to diminish it.

The example that many - within Egypt and in the outside world, especially in the West - have cited is Turkey, a secular democracy with a majority Islamist parliament and a prime minister from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In the history of the Turkish republic, the army has often stepped in, either to remove the prime minister or stage a coup. The army has been a guarantor of secularisation for Turkey at a cost to democracy.

But Egypt is not Turkey - building a modern Egyptian state will mean not only reforming the executive branch, but also the lumbering, ineffective judiciary, which could serve as a further check on the powers of the parliament and the president.

The Egyptian army has said the constitution will need "guidelines" that allow the army to step in under various circumstances, including to defend the secular nature of the state. But it is the other - as yet unknown - circumstances that are more worrying. Under what conditions might the army declare that it must take the reins of power? When a civilian government demanded oversight of the army's budget? The army has already suggested it would not tolerate such a demand.

Such a demand would not come immediately. It will take time for a civilian government to entrench itself, time for an Islamist-dominated legislature to grow its power to the point where - as the AKP in Turkey has - it can challenge the army and hope to win.

Having a prime minister as head of the executive would aid that process, giving the prime minister a significant power base. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood, wary of the example of Algeria, where the military stepped in after Islamists won democratic elections, would probably aim for a token figurehead, at least at the start of the democratic transition.

A strong argument for a president would be that he or she could, in theory, reach over the heads of the parliament and appeal across the society. At the same time, this allows the army to manipulate the president - every single Egyptian president since independence has come from the military and relied on them for support. The Arab world has had many charismatic leaders, but few strongmen have worked well.

Thus given current options, Egypt faces a choice between a president too reliant on the army, and a prime minister too beholden to his party. Given the machinations of politicians who will choose who sits on the constitutional assembly, the choice will not be made by those who made Tahrir Square the centre of the revolution. But the result will affect them all, and affect what happens to the revolution they created.



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