Egypt military moves to protect power
Sets constitution rules that define its governing role
CAIRO - The military council governing Egypt is moving to lay down its own ground rules for a new constitution that would protect and potentially expand its own authority indefinitely, possibly circumscribing the power of future elected officials.
The military announced Tuesday that it planned to adopt a “declaration of basic principles’’ to govern the drafting of a constitution, and liberals here initially welcomed the move as a concession to their demand for a Bill of Rights-style guarantee of civil liberties that would limit the potential repercussions of an Islamist victory at the polls.
But legal specialists enlisted by the military to write the declaration say that it will spell out the armed forces’ role in the civilian government, potentially shielding the defense budget from public or parliamentary scrutiny, and protecting the military’s vast economic interests.
Proposals under consideration would give the military a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics to protect national unity or the secular character of the state. According to a report last month in the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al-Youm, a top general publicly suggested such a role.
The military plans to adopt the document on its own, before any election, referendum, or constitution sets up a civilian authority, said Mohamed Nour Farahat, a law professor working on the document. That would represent an about-face for a force that, after helping to oust President Hosni Mubarak five months ago, consistently pledged to turn over power to elected officials who would draft a constitution.
Though the proposed declaration might protect liberals from an Islamist-dominated constitution, it could also limit democracy by shielding the military from full civilian control.
The military is long accustomed to virtual autonomy. Its budget has never been disclosed to Parliament, and its operations extend into commercial businesses such as hotels, consumer electronics, bottled water, and car manufacturing.
Some are already criticizing the military’s plans as a usurpation of the democratic process. Ibrahim Darwish, an Egyptian legal scholar involved in devising a new Turkish constitution to reduce the political role of its armed forces, said the Egyptian military appeared to be emulating its Turkish counterpart. After a 1980 coup, the Turkish military assigned itself a broad role in politics as guarantor of the secular state, and in the process, contributed to years of political turbulence.
“The constitution can’t be monopolized by one institution,’’ he said. “It is Parliament that makes the constitution, not the other way around.’’
Jurists involved in drafting the text say the Egyptian military told them to draw from several competing proposals that are circulating in Cairo. At least one assigns only a narrow, apolitical role for the military as guardian of national sovereignty, but others grant it sweeping authority and independence, or a writ to intercede in civilian politics similar to the Turkish model.
Others picked by the governing council to draft the declaration have already argued publicly for a broad, Turkish-style role for the Egyptian armed forces in post-revolutionary politics.The announcement of the declaration is a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group considered Egypt’s best-organized and most formidable political force. It was poised to win a major role in the new Parliament and thus the writing of the new constitution.
The group has opposed liberal proposals to draft a constitution before parliamentary elections expected this fall, or to postpone the elections long enough to let liberals catch up in organizing.
Demonstrators have returned to Tahrir Square with increasing frequency to voice their demands, culminating in a weeklong sit-in rivaling the days of the revolution.
The military-led government, in turn, has appeared to respond to public demands with repeated concessions - including replacing an interim prime minister with the handpicked choice of the Tahrir protest leaders, arresting Mubarak and his two sons, and releasing jailed activists. Last week, the government offered concessions, removing hundreds of senior police officers accused of killing protesters.
The military leaders are sounding increasingly exasperated. In a press conference, Major General Mamdouh Shaheen, the council member who reportedly suggested a Turkish-style military role, recalled the military’s support for the revolution and its pivotal decision not to help uphold Mubarak.
The military would not give up “until there is an elected civil authority,’’ he said, but “the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces “does not want to stay in power.’’