Will Egypt’s Military Hijack its Revolution?

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Protesters march with a giant Egyptian national flag at Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, July 12, 2011. (Photo: Nasser Nasser - AP)

Turkey, with its pluralistic democracy and booming economy under the stewardship of a moderate Islamist party, is hailed as the model for post-Mubarak Egypt by many leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood. But the latest initiatives by the 25-man military junta that has ruled since February’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak suggests that the generals are guided by their own Turkish model, of an earlier era — a military autonomous of civilian political control, claiming veto power over the democratic process and intervening at will as self-appointed guardian of secularism and the national interest.

Having played their cards cautiously in the months following Mubarak’s resignation as they took the measure of a turbulent political situation, the generals appear to have grown in confidence: They’re now openly demanding complete autonomy from civilian political oversight in any new constitution — and even even claiming an interventionist role in the political process. And Saturday’s clashes in Tahrir Square highlight a growing confrontation between the military and the protest movement there, each side appearing to bet they can best the other in the battle to steer Egypt’s transition from the Mubarak era.

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“The Army and the people are one hand!” had been a key slogan of the Tahrir Square protests that forced out Mubarak, but it was wishful thinking rather than a statement of fact. In reality, the military had always been the foundation of a regime that had existed since 1952, when Lieutenant Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser led the Free Officers Movement in a coup that overthrew the monarchy. All of the presidents that have ruled Egypt since have come through the senior command echelon of the military. Even while he appointed his generals, former Air Force commander Mubarak was reminded in February that he ruled at their pleasure. And the junta that replaced him is hardly some contemporary iteration of the Free Officers; it’s led by his former Defense Secretary Field Marshal Muhammad Tantawi, and comprised of the same officer echelon that answered to Mubarak.

Last winter’s revolutionary crisis prompted the generals to oust Mubarak in order to restore stability and protect their own vital institutional interests — from the military’s massive stake in the civilian economy and its $1.5 billion annual U.S. stipend for keeping the peace with Israel, to the legitimacy required for it to play its central role in society. Most importantly, the military requires stability, and restoring stability had become impossible while Mubarak remained on the throne. Many of the generals also welcomed the opportunity to confound Mubarak’s plan to break with tradition and appoint his businessman son, Gamal, rather than a military elder, as his own successor.

The junta’s immediate goal was to quell the rebellion, even while proclaiming themselves “guardians of the revolution” — of which they now claim to have been co-authors. The military has discouraged, sometimes violently, further protest and strike action, and more than 7,000 Egyptians have been detained — with many credible reports of torture — since Mubarak’s ouster. Some arms of the state security system have been reorganized and renamed, and some officials have been ousted or prosecuted. But there’s hardly been any kind of wholesale remaking of Mubarak’s security structures to serve the needs of a democratic society; instead, there are gestures to appease popular anger.

The generals, in fact, govern in the familiar style of Arab autocrats facing a restive citizenry — they constantly fire and reshuffle the cabinet, inadvertently affirming that the cabinet holds little real authority. But the Supreme Council had originally promised to rule only for six months — a deadline that expires in August. But it was July 19 before they appointed an electoral commission to begin preparing for a new parliamentary poll. Originally scheduled for September and then postponed until November, no smart money should bet on the election being held before next year.

(PHOTOS: Mubarak: The Man Who Stayed Too Long)

Postponing the election may have angered the Muslim Brotherhood, which would likely prevail at the polls, but it’s in keeping with the wishes of the liberal parties, who fear being trounced by the far better organized and more popular Islamists if the voting were held in the fall. The military has also taken advantage of liberal complaints to revise its thinking on how a new constitution would be drawn up: Originally, the task was to be left to the new parliament, which alarmed liberals because they expected the Brotherhood to have a dominant role in that institution; instead the junta has appointed its own experts to lay down “a declaration of basic principles” that will govern the writing of a new constitution. And those principles are looking set to include protecting the military from civilian oversight, and assigning it an interventionist role in “protecting” Egyptian democracy.

“We want a model like Turkey, but we won’t force it” one general of told the Washington Post last week on condition of anonymity. “Egypt as a country needs this to protect our democracy from the Islamists. We know this group doesn’t think democratically.” Nor does the military, of course. It’s simply doing what comes naturally to an institution that has been the very foundation of six decades of authoritarian rule.

The protestors who took to Tahrir Square last winter, braving the thuggery of Mubarak’s enforcers, were demanding regime-change. But as things stand, what they’ve achieved so far are a series of changes — of personnel, practice and style — within the regime. Left up to the military, the legacy of the rebellion that ousted Mubarak will be a reformed version of his military-based regime rather than a genuine democracy based on the sovereignty of the popular will. But neither the Islamists, nor many of the liberals and other democrats who fought to bring down Mubarak are willing to see the army have the same power over Egypt’s elected government as the authority claimed by unelected clerics in Iran over that country’s parliament and presidency. Rather than its denouement, however, Mubarak’s ouster in February may have been simply the first act of the Egyptian revolution.

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