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Military council feels 'unlimited power to manipulate'

Text by Priscille LAFITTE

Latest update : 2012-06-20

Egypt’s ruling military council feels it has unlimited power to manipulate the political process and knows it can count on US backing as it tightens its grip on power, says Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) granted itself sweeping new legislative powers on Sunday, just as counting began in a pivotal presidential election and barely a day after it dissolved the country’s first democratically-elected parliament. Why is the army tightening its grip on power even as it promises to hand it over to civilians? Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, tells FRANCE 24 that the military’s latest moves boil down to its arrogance and its backing by the US.

Why did the army announce so brutally, just as the polls were closing on Sunday, that they were completely rearranging the legislative, executive and military power to give themselves the lion’s share?

They have been clumsy from the very beginning, and they also lack clarity on legal and constitutional issues. If you look at the constitution they have just drafted, you can tell they haven’t given enough thought to the rules and procedures governing the various bodies. For example, when they say the constitutional court will rule whether the new draft of the constitution is correct or not, we don’t know what their reference will be.

Yezid Sayigh is senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, where his work focuses on the political role of Arab armies.

Mahmoud Shahin, one of the military council’s legal advisors, recently said that the court would check whether the text was consistent with previous constitutions. But that is totally ridiculous. There have been many previous constitutions: one was monarchic, the following one was the officers’ in the 1950s, there was another in the early 1960s, and finally the 1971 constitution used by Mubarak. Will they pick and choose from whichever constitution they want? It is insane.

This suggests that the members of the military council are not only incompetent, but also arrogant. They feel that they have unlimited power to manipulate the political process and the timetable of the transition. They just cancelled everything that has been decided over the past 15 months, without consulting the political parties. The military feel powerful because they see how badly divided the political parties have been over the past year. They are also confident the US will not intervene.

How long will the US back the military council?

The military council knows it is in the interest of the US to accept the status quo, whatever the army does. When the army arrested activists and ransacked the offices of human rights organisations in January, it was a way of testing America’s willingness and ability to intervene. The US says it is concerned about the slow pace of Egypt’s democratic transition. But when the country’s military rulers say they will hand over power to the president by June 30, Washington simply takes their word for it.

Does the army intend to hand power over to civilians?

The army will certainly hand over formal power to civilian authorities. But the critical question is the limits of that power. I don’t see any particular reason why the military could not maintain very important privileges and powers, even as they leave legislative and day-to-day executive authority to civilians.

The army wants to retain a wide range of bureaucratic, economic and political prerogatives and immunities. In the past, Mubarak protected their privileges, so they didn’t need formal guarantees. This time, they need to write all these powers into the constitution. They want to control the political process so that the constitution is written on their terms.

The military council needs to start talks with the political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to negotiate with them item by item the key elements of military power. Political parties need to have a serious and honest debate about the compromise they are willing to reach with the military. I don’t think the country can go from a completely authoritarian regime, as was the case under Mubarak, to full democratic control over the army. This is not going to happen in one step, not even in two or in four steps. It will take years.

Date created : 2012-06-20


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