Egypt’s military is trying to cling on to power, a leading Islamist said today, warning that his exclusion from the presidential ballot is an attempt to hijack the country’s democratic transition.
“The military council does not have the serious intention to transfer power,” said Khairat al-Shater, a wealthy businessman and leading strategist for the Muslim Brotherhood.
The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had reneged on a commitment to cede power to civilian authority, he said.
The Brotherhood is planning to support this week’s planned mobilization by secular revolutionaries, a marked shift from its recent rapprochement with the military.
“We are going to head to Tahrir on Friday because the revolution is being hijacked …we have to wake up,” said Shater.
“I am very fearful about Friday,” said Khaled Fahmy, a history professor at the American University in Cairo. “I fear it may prove to be more tense than any Friday demonstrations before. With these developments and new crises, I don’t know how long society can maintain its stability.”
In addition to al-Shater, the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission’s disqualified another nine presidential candidates, including the Salafist’s hope, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, and Omar Sulieman, the former intelligence chief.
“All of those would have been really controversial candidates,” said the Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “What we’re back to now is other candidates who are perhaps better candidates,” she said—while noting that “there’s no knight in shining armor out there.”
Other analysts fear the decision may provoke violent unrest.
The “general lack of transparency that has marked the transition” raises questions about the election commission’s political neutrality, said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt expert at the New York-based Century Foundation. “We’ve seen that small sparks can precipitate larger clashes and larger bouts of violence,” he said. “That’s worrisome.”
Recent developments suggest that the military is mounting a so-far successful rearguard action to defend its economic interests and political prerogatives.
“The military-intelligence complex [is] trying to engineer a post-Mubarak polity that protects its vast economic empire and guarantees the army a political role,” says Rajan Menon, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University.
“The SCAF’s calculation may be that the remaining 13 candidates will divide the vote, denying anyone a decisive win,” he says.
“Then a non-Islamist, perhaps Amr Moussa, Mubarak’s foreign minister and a former head of the Arab League, could win the second round. That would be a far better outcome for the military-intelligence complex than a Brotherhood president, particularly now that the Islamists control parliament.”
The country’s largest political group still has a candidate in the race since it also nominated Mohamed Mursi, the leader of its political wing, the Freedom and Justice party.
But the dour official “lacks the advantages of Shater,” said Ashraf El Sherif, a political analyst. “He does not have the same power within the group. He is, however, Shater’s man and if he is elected, Shater will be the power behind the throne.”
The commission’s decision is likely to benefit Moussa and Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh, a leading Brotherhood official prior to his expulsion last year.
“The disqualifications…are certainly to the benefit of Amr Moussa and Abdul Moneim Abol Fotouh who were listed as front-runners before the sudden and last minute entrances of Suleiman and shatter to the race,” said Mustapha Al-Sayyid, a Cairo University political science professor.
Former Brotherhood leader Abol Fotouh is also emerging as a leading candidate.
“He will get many of the votes that were going to go to Shater and Abu Ismail as many will not be convinced by Mursi, who has been away from the Egyptian media in the last period,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a political scientist.
Moussa has been performing well in recent opinion polls, in part due to his stress on jobs, living standards and other socio-economic grievances.
“Poverty is Egypt’s number one enemy,” said Moussa, campaigning in the Cairo slum district of al-Hagana. “Egypt is not a poor country. It has plenty of resources – resources that have yet to be used properly,” he added.
More than a third of Egypt’s city-dwellers live in similar slums, says a 2008 United Nations Development report.
Egypt’s secular liberal democrats should consider a compromise candidate like Moussa, says journalist and veteran rights activist Hisham Kassem.*
Sudan “had a similar election to what is happening now in Egypt,” Kassem warns. “They voted a government and a president. Three years later the military overthrew them, and we ended up with Omar al-Bashir. … He’s approaching 30 years now in power.”
But some secular activists are – albeit warily – coordinating with the Islamists on Friday’s rally to demand a law to prohibit former Mubarak regime holdovers from contesting public office.
“We are now working with the Brotherhood and their young members are being very helpful, but I don’t trust anything we agree with them,” said Ahmed Maher, head of the April 6 group.
Egypt’s parliament last week approved amendments to a law to prevent former regime officials from running for office.
“I don’t imagine that the new government aspired to by Egyptians should be built by the same people who worked for the previous regime,” said Amr Hamzawy, a liberal member of parliament and a sponsor of the bill. The presidency must be “symbolic of the change in the political system.”
Tuesday’s ruling confirms that the military are not reconciled to a democratic transition to genuine civilian rule, said Khalil al-Anani, an Egypt specialist at Durham University who specializes in Islamist movements.
“The only thing left for political forces is the street, which is also divided and fragmented over the future,” he said, now that the military has “sabotaged and subverted the transition.”
The SCAF appears to be manipulating the dispute over the constitution-drafting process in a risky bid to retain power, analysts suggest.
“With the Brotherhood already reeling from [al-Shater’s] disqualification, would the SCAF risk inviting further fallout with Islamists over the military’s role in the new constitution?,” asks Mara Revkin, assistant director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource.
“The last time the SCAF tried to manipulate the constitution, it brought the Brotherhood back to the streets – the only political force powerful enough to seriously challenge military rule,” she notes. “If the SCAF repeats this mistake again, the consequences could be even more explosive. “
If the SCAF is trying to stay in power, “it amounts to a big, dicey gamble,” Menon cautions:
Should the streets overflow with protesters and the generals eventually unleash the army and police, massive violence could follow, and the SCAF and the Brotherhood could decide to go for broke. Egypt’s uncertain move toward democracy could then be derailed and the country left in turmoil for a long time. If Washington really wants democracy in Egypt, given its long-standing ties to the Egyptian military and intelligence services, now would be a good time to speak up.
“The phrase ‘Egyptian transition process’ has become tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month,” writes Nathan Brown, a George Washington University professor of political science and senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
First, the eight-member committee that hurriedly drafted the constitutional amendments at the core of the “process” was very restricted in its focus and therefore developed proposals that left key questions unanswered. But while handpicked by the SCAF, it does not seem to have been doing the SCAF’s bidding in any mechanical sense.
Second, the revolutionary leaders were so elated last February by Mubarak’s departure that they did not contest SCAF control for a considerable period. By all appearances, they really believed that the army and people were “one hand” until it was too late to dislodge the army from playing an overbearing role.
Finally, the lion’s share of responsibility lies with the SCAF’s generals who pursued an approach that was politically and legally incoherent. It was not one that has always served their interests very well, but they have been powerless to change it (as was clearly demonstrated by the failure of an apparent — and audacious — attempt to parachute in some “supraconstitutional principles” serving the SCAF’s vision last fall).
“Hope for a transition to a more pluralist and democratic Egypt has certainly not died,” Nathan concludes. “ Egypt’s saving graces — the fact that the gunfire is mostly metamorphic; the continued strength of its political institutions, however deeply corrupted and implicated many are; and the inability of any single political actor to dominate the country — may still carry it through.”