CAIRO: It wasn’t long ago when Western diplomats would tell me they support then-president Hosni Mubarak for stability. The rise of the Islamists and a repeat of the Hamas electoral win in the Palestinian territories was a backhanded excuse, coupled with the regional benefits Mubarak provided to the West’s foreign policy. The rhetoric changed this year, with European and American leaders pledging their support to democracy, regardless of the results – with a nod to political Islam.
Looking at the statements made by an army general to a group of nine American and British journalists last Wednesday, Mubarak’s scarecrow is still very much alive. At least the ruling military council thinks it can resurrect it.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over power in February, pointed at the sweeping wins of the main two Islamist powers in the first phase of the parliamentary elections with contrived alarm. In what the New York Times described as a message directed at Washington, the General said the results weren’t representative. He maintained that the process, the pride and joy of the ruling council, was free and fair.
Ignore the oxymoron for a minute; the SCAF’s rhetoric has been rooted in similar contradictions. Like they’ve done in dealing with previous local issues, the army generals are reading from Mubarak’s playbook: using the foreign policy card to undermine any democratic practice.
Mubarak did it to solidify his hold on power, both internally and internationally. We lived in fear of the other: If it weren’t for Mubarak, Islamists would enforce strict interpretation on Islam on Egyptians and liberals would enforce debauched Western practices on Muslims. The fear was fueled even further by the military and panicking speakers on either side of the debate over the past 10 months. This polarization is what led to the surprise win of a coalition of hardline Islamist parties, according to political analyst Ibrahim El-Houdiaby. While the Muslim Brotherhood’s sweeping win was expected (over 36 percent of list votes and 36 single seats), concerning their continuous social and political work over the past decades, the political newcomers running under the banner of the Salafi Al-Nour Party surprised many with 24 percent of the votes of the first phase.
“The Obama administration joined the calls of Egyptian activists for the generals to turn over power ‘immediately’ to a civilian government, and the generals have expected that the threat of an Islamist takeover at the polls might now give Washington pause,” the NYT wrote of the meeting.
To ensure that the West, scared or not, is involved in the game, Major General Mokhtar Al-Molla told the foreign journalists that the military would indirectly control the writing of the constitution.
According to a constitutional referendum last March, the parliament would be tasked with choosing a constituent assembly that would draft the constitution. A couple of months ago, the SCAF said it would introduce what Egypt’s liberals have been calling for: a charter of supra constitutional principles guaranteeing general freedoms – on the pretext of preempting hardliners’ control of the parliament. But at the end of the charter that was widely rejected, the military inserted two clauses ensuring the secrecy of its budget and enshrining a superior place for it outside the state, legally and constitutionally. It also tried to push for criteria for choosing the members of the assembly. Instead of guaranteeing the representation of the different sectors of the society, the list was directed at the representation of state institutions.
As Rania Al Malky, editor of Daily News Egypt, noted here, the military is pitting political forces against each other. It’s using the fear of the Islamists to emerge as a savior of the secular state, holding behind its back the usual package of unrelated interests. If you want to protect your personal freedom from the scary Islamist, surrender your democratic aspirations, the SCAF would say in its bid to devoid the elected parliament of any powers.
The Muslim Brotherhood has said, even before the elections, that the majority in the parliament should be able to form the government. It indicated an intention to fight for more than legislative powers and the army responded by waving the possibility of no powers at all.
In 2011, the year when Egyptians protested en masse against a dictatorship rooted in military control, fighting for more powers to elected bodies on the expense of the unelected military council is as important as keeping street action alive.
Thinking for once that the military council— which killed 27 in a brutal crackdown on a mostly Coptic protest on Oct. 9 and whose generals led smear campaigns against activists sometimes based on how “un-Egyptian” their looks are — would protect personal freedoms or minorities is the equivalent of believing in fairytales.
Yet, for the military council, it’s not that straight forward and pitting political powers against each other is a much complicated game. SCAF member General Mamdouh Shahin has already denied Al-Molla’s statements, luring Islamist forces back to an advisory council with a vague mandate. Al-Molla had said the advisory council would be SCAF’s representative in the parliament, indicating it would have more powers over the constitution than MPs. Shahin said it won’t.
The hardline Salafis, represented in the Al-Nour which is spearheading a three-party alliance, has had members in the advisory council from the very first day, choosing to believe Shahin. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party might get the members it withdrew from the council to go back, choosing to eventually believe Shahin.
The timing of the council is enough reason for skepticism. Activists have long called for a civilian presidential council to either take over power or share it with the generals. To form a civilian council a couple of months before parliament convenes, with a strictly “advisory” mandate according to Shahin, is enough reason for mistrust.
The contradicting statements by two generals, the readiness to put the Islamist scarecrow back on the international stage, and the introduction of unneeded political fights at crucial times solidify the belief that the SCAF is keeping its intentions and the game vague as it extends the transition it’s mismanaging longer and longer. I hate to see political forces across the spectrum fall in the trap and relinquish the fight for a democratic system for the sake of momentary gains, which would lead us all to square one.