x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Generals in control; Egyptians unenthused about elections

Egypt's generals have been looking for a way to maintain their control beyond the election of a new parliament, the drafting of a new constitution and the election of a president.

CAIRO // On November 28 Egyptians begin electing their first parliament since the overthrow of the former Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, nine months ago.

It should have been be a joyous occasion since elections have been consistently rigged for decades and the upcoming vote promises to be fair. But hardly anyone seems to be embracing the day with the zeal to be expected from a people who had for many years seen their wishes ignored.

Blame the ruling generals.

For much of the time since they took over from Mr Mubarak, the generals have been looking in earnest for a way to maintain their control beyond the election of a new parliament, the drafting of a new constitution and the election of a president.

In the meantime, they have increasingly been behaving like an authoritarian junta, enjoying absolute power with no checks or balances. They have appointed a cabinet and a prime minister who are weak and beholden to their wishes.

They have tortured detainees and tried thousands of civilians before military tribunals, according to rights groups.

It is the biggest of all Arab Spring ironies.

Egypt's revolution miraculously succeeded in toppling Mr Mubarak's 29-year regime in 18 tumultuous days of protests only to pave the way for a military dictatorship.

It is a turn of events that has prompted the youth groups that engineered the uprising to wonder whether it was wise to end their sit-in at Tahrir, the Cairo square that witnessed the birthplace of the uprising, soon after Mr Mubarak stepped down rather than hang in there until the country's path to democratic rule was defined and guaranteed.

Adding to the dampened spirits is that the elections are staggered, in three stages over almost two months and that parliament will not convene until March.

No one knows with any certainty the extent of powers the new parliament will have and whether the military, represented by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, will be prepared to submit to the oversight of lawmakers.

The story of how the military got to where it is in Egypt is a cautionary tale that leaders of Yemen's nine-month-old anti-regime uprising, for example, are taking seriously.

They say they will not leave Change Square, the Tahrir of Sanaa, Yemen's capital, until their ultimate goal of creating a "civil state" is achieved. The departure of longtime President Ali Abdullah Saleh will not be enough to make them leave, they insist.

Back in Egypt, it is a sad rather than a cautionary tale.

The youth groups that engineered the removal of Mr Mubarak may not have planned ahead. They toppled the regime but did not have a substitute for it. So, when the army took over the streets on January 28, protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere in Egypt, chanted "the people and the army are one hand".

But it was a matter of hours before they found out that the military was not the friendly force they had thought it to be. Protesters were arrested and put on trial before military tribunals hours after the first tank appeared on the streets. And a few days later, army soldiers stood by as Mubarak loyalists on horse and camel waded into the crowds at Tahrir, striking people with swords and whips in what was one of the bloodiest days of the uprising.

Protest leaders have said they knew from the start that they could not trust the army as allies in a pro-democracy movement but had no one else to turn to ensure victory over Mr Mubarak's regime. After all, they said, members of the Supreme Council had for years owed allegiance to Mr Mubarak. The military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, was Mr Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years.

Rights groups say detainees were tortured, initially at the courtyard of the world famous Egyptian Museum located, ironically, at Tahrir Square and later at military jails. Female protesters were subjected to the humiliation of "virginity tests" performed by male doctors using their hands and at least 12,000 civilians were hauled before military tribunals for trial.

The military has been unable to take the measures necessary to revive the economy or restore security, two blatant failures that many activists suspect may have been engineered by the military to create conditions that would leave most Egyptians no choice but to abandon their dreams of freedom and instead support military rule in exchange for safety and food on the table.

In the same vein, the military has been systematically discrediting the youth groups and prominent activists who have been the face of the anti-Mubarak uprising, accusing them of illegally receiving foreign funds, working for foreign powers and, in some instances, of immorality.

But the military's core plan is to include in the next constitution, to be drafted next year, language that would give the armed forces a "guardianship" role that allows it to have the final word on key national policies, shield them from any civilian oversight and curtail the powers of the next parliament in selecting the 100-member panel that would draft the constitution.

Cunningly, the generals are not publicly advocating any of this themselves, but using senior cabinet members to try to sell the plan to political parties. And for defending the plan, they have looked to the services of a coterie of "military experts" and "constitutional experts" to argue their case on TV talk shows and in newspaper articles.

For close to 60 years now, Egypt has been under military rule, direct or otherwise. And, by all available evidence, it is not likely to be without it anytime soon, particularly when the resolve and character shown by the millions of young men and women during those 18 revolutionary days are nowhere in sight. The youth groups are only too aware of the dangers ahead and some of them are threatening a "second revolution". But no one is counting on one just yet.