by A.E. SOUAIAIA*
It is not quite clear if the Egyptian military rulers are miser politicians or experts in brinkmanship. Whatever the case may be, the slow transition to civilian rule is frustrating many Egyptians. After months of delays, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) , the de facto rulers since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, announced on September 27, 2011 that the first round of elections will start November 21. Parties and individuals can start n ominating candidates on Oct. 12. The fact that the elections of the two chambers will be spread over a period of two full months is significant in and of itself. However, what was not announced is far more consequential and that is a date for the presidential elections.
Given that it was already established that the military council will remain in charge of the country until a new president is elected, it becomes clear that the military is not interested in a swift handing of power to civilians. This maneuvering is an eerie reminder of the Algerian scenario that took place in the early 1990's and resulted in a bloody and devastating conflict. Then, the military junta forced President Chedli Ben Jedid to resign, canceled the second round of elections, and jailed most of the candidates who had won during the first round. That plunged the country into a decade long period of civil war, torture, assassinations, murders, and disappearances that affected tens of thousands of people. There is that scenario; but there is also another scenario--the Turkish one.
In Egypt, the military is a powerful institution with economic and ideological interests. Some of these interests were necessitated by change. Others were perks that come with being part of the system. For instance, the Egyptian army which had fought two wars against Israel in the 1960's and 1970s was one of the largest Arab armies. After the peace accord with Israel however, the military needed to provide its soldiers with a new mission. So the government facilitated their transition into service and manufacturing sectors. According to some estimates, as much as 40% of the Egyptian economy is controlled by the military. From tourism to food processing businesses, the military as an institution and many officers became either major owners or investors. Given this reality, the military is now worried that they may lose these privileges and its leaders are maneuvering to establish redlines that cannot be crossed by future governments. In a sense, the Egyptian military wants to replicate the role played by the Turkish military up until 2002.
The decree scheduling the vote for the legislative People's Assembly beginning November 28 and the Shura (Consultative) Council on Jan. 29 would allow the military leaders to monitor results and issue executive orders as they see fit. For instance, if any given party were to win a significant majority, the military could issue new orders that will help them preserve their interests accordingly. Moreover, the spread would give the military ample time to predetermine the course of future events since the first session for the People's Assembly will not be held until March 17 while the Shura Council will convene on March 24.
The delays however, thought to offer the military a chance to protect its future, is having unintended consequences. Egypt's revolutionaries appear to lose trust in the generals. Many have complained that the Council was slow to dismantle Mubarak's regime and try those accused of corruption, murder of protesters, and mismanagement of national resources.
Even the election law which governs how the vote is to be held is becoming a subject of a dispute between the military and the various political forces. To prevent remnants of Mubarak's regime many political parties' leaders asked the military committee in charge of drafting the law to allow for party lists only. The military rulers thought that they would compromise, allowing individual candidates to contest for only one-third of the seats. Now, no one is happy.
The military rulers continue to ignore calls to end the cruel emergency laws before the elections. The laws enacted in 1981 empower authorities to detain people without charge and ban strikes and protests. It is likely that the military rulers want to preserve this repressive tool just in case they will need to use it in the future.
All the restrictive measures and lack of action on issues important for civil liberties and citizens' rights are widening the gap between the people and the military generals. Most telling was the loss of trust between the youth and the military leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. For example, when Tantawi was seen (over the weekend) shaking hands with people in the streets while wearing civilian clothes, many Egyptians reacted with cynicism arguing that he might be polishing his image before he announces his candidacy for president. Although a military spokesperson denied that Tantawi is interested in running, many Egyptians remained fearful of the military role in the future of Egyptian politics.
In all cases, all eyes will be on Tunisia and Egypt this fall and winter. As these two countries that started the Arab Spring go so will the rest of the Arab world. Tunisians are voting on October 23 for a Constituency Council who will take over the reins of government from Ben Ali's remnants. The elected body will be tasked with drafting a new constitution and leading the country forward. The Egyptians too will be taking the first steps towards the post-authoritarian rule. These events, should they happen without military interference, should further inspire the rest of the Arab peoples to force change. But if the military steps in and aborts the process, violence could break out and engulf the entire region.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of the book, Contesting Justice. Opinions expressed herein are the author's, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.