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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Will the Armed Forces Retain Power in Egypt?

Filed under: Egypt

On September 26, 2011, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, chose to walk the streets of Cairo without his trademark military attire. He wore no fatigues like those in which he appeared during the days of the protests in Al-Tahrir Square, no parade uniform as in his official pictures, simply Mr. Tantawi in a plain black suit, casually greeting and chatting with civilians – with no security detail in sight.

An Egyptian National TV crew just happened to be there and video footage of the event was aired later in the day on state television. While the video showed civilians warmly greeting Tantawi, the social networking sites were outraged by the “cynical” use of the media by the ruling Supreme Council. The scene became the subject of criticism, jokes, and cynicism at the supposed spontaneity of Tantawi’s tour.

In fact, the tour provoked shock waves around the country since to quite a large number of  Egyptians, the “downtown tour” was nothing short of a presidential bid by Tantawi, or a thinly veiled attempt to assess his popularity before running for president after stepping down from his military position. On some of the social networks, Tantawi was called “the new Mubarak” who was planning to stay in power for a long time.

Judging from the way the public, as well as the main opposition forces, describe SCAF, one can reasonably assume that there is no state of confidence between Egypt’s interim rulers and the political forces that have sprung up since Mubarak’s ouster.

Egypt under SCAF resembles a drifting boat with no real captain at the helm. On the one hand, there is significant liberalization in freedom of speech, a freedom that leaves unchallenged extreme fundamentalist preachers who express bizarre and dangerous ideas in a society deeply divided between the Muslim majority and a sizeable Coptic Christian presence. The elite as well as the leaders are attacked and ridiculed in all social networks as well as in the newspapers. Nothing is spared. Every subject is attacked, especially the peace treaty with Israel, including calls for its abrogation.

Egypt under SCAF has been witness to a mass formation of new political parties. Under the ruling military council’s recent party formation law that eased the conditions imposed under Mubarak, parties must present the Parties Committee, composed of judges and chaired by the head of the Court of Cassation, with written notification of their intention to operate as a political party. The notification must be signed by 5,000 members from 10 different Governorates, with at least 300 members from each of the Governorates. As a result, Egypt now has 47 officially approved parties, 24 of which were established before the January 25 revolution. The first party to be approved after the new law was passed in March was the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party. A handful of other leftist parties have also been seeking the required memberships, including the Democratic Workers party, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party.

The new regime has also shown it was ready “to clean the stables.” Former ministers have been put on trial and sent to jail. Thousands of high-ranking police officers have been asked to resign, while dozens are waiting to be tried. SCAF has also taken the ultimate decision not only to try former President Mubarak and his sons, but also to show the ousted, ailing, 83- year-old president lying on a stretcher and waiting in an iron cage for his trial. Due to the immense negative reaction, however, SCAF decide to stop live televised coverage of the trial.

On the other hand, the military-led interim government has been accused of torture; trying civilians in military courts; hesitation toward the crystallization of the new nation-state of Egypt; and of being extremely slow in enacting democratic reforms. The Emergency Law imposed by Mubarak in the aftermath of former President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in October 1981 still governs the country, even though endless promises were given by members of SCAF that the law would remain in place for only six months. The Emergency Law gives state security forces the power to control elections, conduct arbitrary detentions and military tribunals, and even carry out torture. In fact, the government can do anything it wants to in the name of public order.

Following clashes between police and protesters in the streets near Israel’s Embassy in Cairo, SCAF ordered heightened security and declared it would extend the Emergency Law. Indeed, the Egyptian government has announced it would reintroduce special security courts used under Mubarak, and Egypt’s interior ministry is now warning that security forces could begin using live ammunition to protect certain facilities if the police believe their lives are in danger.

Last but not least, SCAF has announced an amended election law under which two-thirds of the National Assembly will be elected via a party-list system of proportional representation, with the rest by a simple majority. Article 5 of the law bans political parties from fielding candidates for a full one-third of the seats in the National Assembly. This means that only independent candidates and not those associated with political parties will be eligible to run for one-third of the seats. The recent amendments also reduce the number of parliamentary seats from 508 to 498 and stipulate that the MPs be elected through a general vote, with half the members being either farmers or workers. The amendments also require that each list include at least one female candidate. The new law also reduces the number of seats in the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) from 390 to 327.

Critics of the individual candidacy system say that the system is tailor-made to allow figures associated with the former regime back into the National Assembly, while the application of the law will deprive political parties of the chance to compete for a full one-third of the seats. In other words, the law creates a situation that, if applied, would prevent any political party from gaining a parliamentary majority. Indeed, since the amendments have been publicized there is growing discontent among major political parties, which threaten to boycott the 28 November elections if the amendments are applied.

When Field Marshall Tantawi appeared in his Jeep dressed in fatigues in February 2011, crowds cheered as the Egyptian army did not use its weapons against the protesters and promised a new horizon of hope and democracy. Seven months later, it is obvious that Egypt is not the same. Rather, the hesitant SCAF is growing more decisive. Understanding the dangers to the modern Egyptian state, SCAF has finally embarked on a course meant to reduce the powers of the fundamentalists, regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, reduce to a minimum the impact of Israel on its regional, domestic and international policies, and maintain its huge economic empire within Egypt’s economy.

From this perspective, Tantawi’s suit could mean more than it shows. Like his predecessors, Tantawi might be tempted to remain Egypt’s leader in order to maintain Egypt as he inherited it from Mubarak – a military-led society.