Egypt's bumpy road to the ballot box

Upcoming presidential election will test whether the military finally releases their hold on power.

    Egypt's bumpy road to the ballot box
    The Supreme Council for Armed Forces has ruled the country for the last 16 months [Reuters]

    The clashes near Egypt's defence ministry earlier this month seemed, to many, part of a familiar script.

    With elections looming in just a few weeks, the country was transfixed by images of protesters battling with military police. Clouds of tear gas wafted through Abbasiyya, a neighbourhood not far from downtown Cairo, and armoured vehicles lined the streets.

    A collection of political parties, ranging from Salafis to liberal revolutionaries - 42 of them in all - held a press conference in Cairo shortly after the clashes to issue a statement against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Egypt's military junta. They denounced a "SCAF conspiracy" - a plot to remain in power and "deprive Egypt's incoming president of his rightful authorities".

    It was all very reminiscent of the week-long clashes on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo before the parliamentary elections in November, which left 41 people dead and more than 2,000 wounded. Then, as now, critics accused SCAF of trying to stir up chaos and delay the elections.

    The parliamentary vote went forward as planned, and it seems likely that this month's presidential ballot will do the same. The real test, though, will come at the end of June, when SCAF reaches its self-imposed deadline to hand over power to a civilian government. A growing number of Egyptians - not just the country's liberal revolutionaries, but its Islamists as well - worry that the military rulers will postpone the transition in order to preserve their privileged place in society.

    "It finds itself in the worst of both worlds: an angry tug-of-war with liberal protesters and a high-wire contest with Islamists," a new report from the International Crisis Group concludes about SCAF. "It displays little interest in governing, wishing instead to protect privileges, but erratic behaviour threatens even that."

    No longer one hand

    One of the slogans of last year's revolution was "the people and the army are one hand". There were some dissenters, of course; online activist Maikel Nabil was jailed last year for expressing a contrary opinion on his blog. But many Egyptians appreciated the army's decision not to attack the revolutionaries camped out in Tahrir Square.

    That goodwill was short-lived though, at least among Egypt's revolutionaries.

    The military junta quickly developed a reputation for brutality, and for acting with impunity. When a military doctor conducted "virginity tests" on more than a dozen women detained during a protest in March 2011, SCAF at first denied the tests even took place. Under mounting domestic and international pressure, the doctor was finally put on trial - and, nearly a year after the tests took place, was acquitted.

    That was only the most egregious example. More than 12,000 Egyptians were tried before military courts last year, which is more than during the three decades of Mubarak's rule, according to international rights groups. Detainees emerged from prison with tales of torture.

    At the same time, SCAF was, by all accounts, mismanaging the transition to civilian rule. Shortly after Mubarak stepped down, SCAF announced its intention to step down over the summer, with presidential election no later than August. Those dates were constantly pushed back.

    The process of drafting a new constitution was equally vague. SCAF hastily organised a referendum in March last year on a package of new amendments, which were incorporated into the interim "constitutional declaration". But SCAF moved slowly on creating a constituent assembly to draft a permanent document. It was finally assembled earlier this year, but is currently suspended by court order, and dogged by allegations that it does not represent minorities, women, and other vulnerable groups.

    The lack of a permanent constitution means that the newly-elected parliament, and the soon-to-be-elected president, do not really know their powers.

    All of this has led to deep suspicion of SCAF's motives. Liberals fear the military wants to preserve elements of the status quo - to keep its budget free from parliamentary scrutiny, for example, and to ensure that the generals can influence foreign policy.

    The generals tried to cement those privileges in November by backing a proposed "supra-constitutional document", which would have declared the army the protector of "constitutional legitimacy". That plan backfired, though, when Egypt's normally fractious political forces united against it.

    The supra-constitutional plan, indeed, is one reason why Islamist groups have recently become more suspicious of SCAF. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won the largest share of seats in the new parliament, and its leadership has begun talking about shifting to a "semi-presidential" system of government, weakening the historically powerful executive branch in favour of the legislature.

    Members of the group fear SCAF will try to block those changes. Khairat al-Shater, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate who was disqualified last month, accused the army of seeking "special status" after the transition.

    Yet, for all the mistrust, SCAF is not broadly unpopular. Activists might have seen the defence ministry clashes as proof of the military's brutality, but to many Egyptians they were another sign of the "chaos" sweeping the country since the revolution.

    The tension between preserving the revolution and ending the disorder of the last 16 months will be one of the defining issues in the presidential election. Candidates with ties to the old regime, like Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, have tried to portray themselves as forces for "stability".

    But they have been deliberately vague about whether they will try to restrict the army's privileges. It is that decision, and the army's response, which will ultimately determine whether Egypt can move towards political stability.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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