x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Egypt's future looks familiar - and grim

Egypt's generals stand accused of torturing detainees, killing protesters, hauling at least 10,000 civilians before military tribunals and badly bungling the transition.

Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, attends the funeral of a member of Egypt's special forces in Cairo on Saturday. The soldier was killed in clashes between troops and anti-military protesters on Friday.
Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, attends the funeral of a member of Egypt's special forces in Cairo on Saturday. The soldier was killed in clashes between troops and anti-military protesters on Friday.

With less than three weeks to go before the country's landmark presidential election, Egypt's transition to democratic rule is looking as doubtful as it did under Hosni Mubarak.

Deadly clashes between security forces and protesters, an increasingly bitter battle of wills between the ruling military and Islamists, a stalemate in the drafting of a constitution, and a free-falling economy are the main features of today's Egypt.

Many believe a president who is freely and fairly elected will signal the end of Egypt's woes, but it is more likely that the bloodshed and ill will of the past year have left scars so deep they won't heal quickly or completely.

The military, for example, was hailed by protesters as the revolution's protectors last year when its generals sided with them against Mubarak's regime during the 18-day uprising. Now, the generals stand accused of torturing detainees, killing protesters - more than 100, according to most estimates - hauling at least 10,000 civilians before military tribunals and badly bungling the transition.

The generals, however, categorically deny that they have blood on their hands although video footage of their vehicles running over protesters late last year has been widely circulated on social networks. They also project themselves as the nation's most patriotic group, bragging about their "sacrifices" for the nation during times of war as well as peace, while discrediting or belittling other forces on the political scene.

On Friday, Egyptian troops blasted protesters with water cannons, tear gas and live ammunition, trying to prevent them from marching on the Defence Ministry in clashes that left one soldier dead and scores of people injured. More than 300 protesters were detained and a overnight curfew was put in place last night for the second successive night.

Last Wednesay, the generals were accused of having troops seen to be standing by and watching when armed assailants attacked several hundred supporters of a disqualified presidential hopeful camped out outside the ministry. The predawn attack on the mostly Islamist protesters left at least nine killed and dozens wounded before troops intervened.

A senior member of the ruling council later tried to counter accusations that the military was behind the turmoil so it can justify holding onto power by claiming it is needed to maintain law and order.

The generals and the Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, are taking their fight into the open after a period of several months when the two were widely believed to have some sort of a political understanding. Maj Gen Mohammed Al Asar, a senior member of the ruling council, laid bare the military's main concern over the Brotherhood when he told a news conference on Wednesday that the military saw no problem in the group's domination of the legislature so long as it abided by the rules of democracy and stepped aside if others win the next parliamentary election.

Gen Al Asar never mentioned the Brotherhood by name, but it was clear he was referring to it. His boss, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi _ the country's military ruler _ has been more blunt, repeatedly saying in public comments in recent weeks that the military would not allow a single group to dominate the country. Again, he did not mention the Brotherhood by name.

It is ominous talk ahead of the presidential election contested by 13 candidates of whom about a third are Islamists.

In a thinly veiled reference to the military, the Brotherhood voiced its concerns that efforts were being made to ensure that no Islamist wins the presidency and that the disqualification of its first-choice candidate, strategist and wealthy businessman Khairat El Shater, was part of that plot. Mr El Shater has been replaced by the Brotherhood's second-choice, Mohammed Mursi, who lacks charisma and is generally viewed as a much weaker candidate.

The Brotherhood has also been talking of rigging the election if the military-backed government of Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzouri remained in office until voting day. The legislature, where the Brotherhood controls just under half of all seats, suspended its sessions for a week last Sunday to protest against what its speaker, Saad El Katatni, said was the military council's failure to heed repeated calls for the dismissal of the government.

The military, for its part, sees no point in changing the government less than a month before the presidential vote, after which it is to hand over power. Gen Al Asar, the military council's senior member, also reacted indignantly to suggestions that the military would orchestrate the rigging of the vote to ensure that a candidate of its choice wins.

The political feuding and the bloodshed on the streets do not bode well for Egypt's future, regardless of the election of a new president.

A non-Islamist president would not have the cooperation or the support of the Brotherhood and other Islamists in the legislature who, combined, control about 70 per cent of all seats. Lack of cooperation would likely slow legislation, perhaps even derailing it. An Islamist president would alarm minority Christians, liberals and leftists and push Egypt much farther along the road to a fully religious state.

Already, the Islamists, particularly the Brotherhood, have shown a tendency to seek domination or push through their own agenda regardless of the nation's greater interest. It tried to dominate the panel mandated with drafting a constitution to ensure, among other things, that the new charter gives the president less powers while according the legislature they dominate more. A court ruling disbanded the Islamist-dominated, 100-member panel and the Islamists and the military are now locked in a stalemate with the Islamists in the search for a new selection process for a more balanced panel.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae