Ever since the fall of deposed president Hosni Mubarak last Feb. 11, the unity the Egyptian people had displayed during the previous 18 days has been slowly eroding.
This fracture began to emerge during the nationwide referendum on March 19. Shortly after assuming power, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) formed a committee of constitutional scholars to propose a road map towards the transition to democracy. Within two weeks, the committee drafted a popular referendum that proposed to hold parliamentary elections, empowered the new parliament to select a hundred-person assembly to write the new constitution, to be followed by presidential elections.
Almost immediately, Egyptian society was sharply divided into two main camps. One was led by the Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which embraced this plan. Meanwhile, the liberal and secular forces opposed it for fear that their Islamist rivals were better organized and better positioned to dictate the composition of the constitution-writing assembly. This "elections or constitution first" approach -- as dubbed in the press -- was settled when Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favor of the March referendum with 77 percent support. Having been defeated at the polls, the secular and liberal forces have since been attempting to circumvent this process by pressuring SCAF to limit the authority of the future parliament.
Despite its initial promise last February to limit the transitional period to six months, SCAF has been slow in instituting many of the steps that were needed to carry out the elections, the first step towards the end of military rule. Under pressure from the secular and liberal parties, SCAF tried throughout the summer to impose a set of "supra-constitutional principles" that could not be amended, even by popular will. When that effort failed due to its undemocratic nature and strong public opposition, the SCAF-appointed government, through former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Silmi, proposed an even bolder document before the November elections. Although Islamic and liberal groups had previously agreed on a set of core constitutional principles, the negotiations failed due to the insistence of SCAF to insert extra-constitutional powers to the military.
To be clear, the major political forces, religious and secular, agree that the emerging Egyptian state will be a civil state. But the Islamic parties argue that the Egyptian people want the frame of reference of that state to be the Islamic law or Shari"ah, while liberal and secular forces argue that such a reference would undermine basic individual liberties. The MB, which rejects the concept of a religious state along the lines of the Iranian model, argues that this fundamental choice should be subject to the will of the Egyptian people. Secular forces, on the other hand, fear that due to the religious nature of Egyptian society, the model espoused by the Islamic parties would win over a majority of Egyptians and hence the attempt to establish a modernist-secularist state in Egypt hangs by a thin thread.
Throughout this debate, SCAF was not only tilting towards the liberal and secular forces, but was also quietly pushing to preserve as well as expand its authorities and privileges under the new constitution. For example, the SCAF-supported Al-Silmi's document tried to slip through several provisions that would have greatly increased the powers of the military at the expense of the democratically elected parliament and president.
The draft included: no parliamentary oversight of the military's defense budget; a provision that would require parliament to obtain the military's approval prior to issuing any laws affecting its budget or functions; authority for the military to refer the new constitution to the Supreme Constitutional Court if it is thought to violate any of the constitutional declarations issued by the military, in essence casting a veto over the new constitution before the people even cast a single vote; a provision that would allow the military to appoint 80 of the 100 members of the constitution-writing assembly, thus deeming the whole elections process a farce; and claiming authority to appoint a new constitution-writing assembly if the first one does not agree on a constitution within six months.
Needless to say, this power grab was totally rejected and mass protests took place on November 18 demanding the withdrawal of the document and the resignation of the government. After bloody confrontations with the security forces that resulted in at least 42 deaths and 3,000 injuries, SCAF accepted the resignation of the government, resolved to hold the parliamentary elections on time, and for the first time promised to hold presidential elections and end military rule by the end of next June.
Ironically, a sizable number of youth-led revolutionary activists who challenged the authority of the military council in the streets, do not see eye-to-eye with Egypt's Islamic parties. Their main concern was to end military rule after losing confidence in its ability to transition the country to democratic rule. They called for escalations with SCAF and sit-ins in Tahrir Square until a national salvation government is established. Meanwhile, confident of their abilities to win the elections, the Islamic parties refused to go back to the streets after the collapse of the government and the death of Al-Silmi's document.
U.S. Policy Towards Egypt
Throughout this tumultuous period, the United States government has been a quiet but active player. According to the Dec. 1 report of Campaign and Elections, the U.S. government has allocated "some $200 million, as a baseline, for democracy building in Egypt," in a bid to "counteract the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party." It also reported that groups such as the neocon-inspired International Republican Institute "focused on building up the country's nascent Western-leaning political parties."
After giving Egypt almost $70 billion in the past three decades as a payoff for its peace treaty with Israel, U.S. policy towards Egypt has been wobbly of late. A report submitted to the U.S. Congress by the Congressional Research Service on Nov. 18, details the contentious issues facing the U.S. government as it determines its policy towards Egypt.
On the one hand, the U.S. purports to support the transition towards democracy, even while it loathes the anticipated victory by the Islamic parties. It wants to preserve its historic relations with Egypt's military without being seen as overtly endorsing SCAF's tactics to undermine democratic transitions. The report warns that many Egyptians are "highly critical of the U.S. [previous] support of the Mubarak regime" and that a revolutionary Egypt shows "resentment toward Israel."
Moreover, continuous meddling by Congress, especially the Republican-led House, has been hampering this relationship because of its one-dimensional approach. It only views U.S-Egyptian relations through the Israeli prism. Recently a House Committee voted to provide a $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt next year, contingent upon the President's certification that the Egyptian government "is not directly or indirectly controlled by a foreign terrorist organization," and it is "fully implementing the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty," as well as "it is detecting and destroying the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip."
In a recent address to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington D.C, Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX), the chairperson of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations in the House that initiated this bill, said that she "was proud of that provision on the aid bill" and that "if the MB formed the future government of Egypt, then Egypt would be run by a terrorist organization." When her statement was challenged by a member of the audience who pointed out that the MB was not on the State Department "terrorist list," her answer was that it should be since the "Muslim Brotherhood opposed the peace treaty with Israel."
In short, as long as the U.S. policy in Egypt and the entire Middle East is controlled by what is best for Israel, regardless of the broader U.S. interests and political implications in the region, such policy will continue to be perceived as contradictory, confusing, and suspect by ordinary Egyptians and Arabs.