x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Egyptian army risks repeating past mistakes

Egypt's military is reportedly preparing to position itself above any new constitution, and beyond control by an elected government. This is all too familiar.

Egypt's elections, which had been scheduled for September, have been pushed back, by decree of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to October or November. Then will come the drafting of a new constitution, then a presidential election.

As the Cairo-based journalist Issandr El Amrani reports on the facing page, however, concern is now mounting over reports that the generals are taking steps to convert their temporary supremacy into a firm grasp of power in - or rather power over - any new government.

Headlines from Egypt this week have been dominated by the replacement of half the cabinet, mostly by newcomers to high office. The prime minister, Essam Sharaf, has with this shuffle moved his government closer to the views and demands of the protesters who still crowd Tahrir Square. State-run TV calls the new leadership team a "revolution cabinet".

But you can't fully understand how Egypt is run without considering the army, which by many accounts sees itself not as a guarantor of democracy but as a protector of stability - and its own interests.

The New York Times and Washington Post have reported, following the Egyptian paper Al Masry Al Youm, that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is planning to announce a "declaration of basic principles" which could amount to supra-constitutional status for the military, leaving it exempt from civilian control in the new Egypt.

These reports have not been denied. If they are correct they will certainly not prove popular with Egyptians.

The same "basic principles" were at the core of the unlamented old regime. The military budget has been outside parliamentary scrutiny and the military leadership largely autonomous. It has invested heavily in some civilian industries, where the forces now have substantial economic influence.

The inevitable comparison is with Turkey, which now appears to be emerging from decades of damaging tension between military and civilian authority.

Egypt's liberal reformers are now in a dilemma: many of them feel that the country needs stability, but not at the expense of according the military so much unsupervised power.

If the military gets its way on these "basic principles" the elections will become much less meaningful.