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Dr Musa A Keilani: Military in power politics
August 23, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

One key question remains foremost in the minds of those who do take an interest in developments in the Arab World: What exactly do the ruling generals of Egypt have in mind and how would that be compatible with what the Egyptians want?

So far, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over Egypt when Hosni Mubarak stepped down as president in February, has treaded a careful path after having appeared as the guardian of the Egyptian people during the 18 days of rebellion that brought down the veteran president. The council, headed by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who was defence minister under Mubarak, has promised to hold parliamentary elections this year and hand over power to an elected government next year.

Tantawi, who served the regime for many years, was intimate and close to Mubarak and many Egyptians see him as guilty or as innocent as any other member of the ousted government. He was the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in his capacity as defence minister and he hung on to that position when Mubarak was toppled.

Critics say at some point he would have to face the reality that some people might declare a demand for an investigation into his record in government and determine whether he could face any charge linked to his performance. However, that would not happen as long as he remains at the helm of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Egypt’s armed forces have undoubtedly the potential to crackdown on any protest in the country of 80 and plus million people.

The ruling generals are from the old school, which believed in absolute power and ruthlessness while dealing with dissent of any kind.

There is growing fear among many that the military could halt the transition to democracy at any point that it feels that the ruling generals could suffer the same fate as members of the ousted regime, particularly that they have demonstrated that they are using the same methods that the Mubarak government used while dealing with criticism and dissent. Thousands of people detained during and after the revolt remain in prison and face trial by military courts. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has followed a consistent policy of detaining journalists and prominent bloggers who criticised its actions and pressing tough charges against them.

Human rights groups have charged that peaceful protesters were hauled into jails at the slightest provocation and tortured before being sent to military courts.

Many Egyptians suspect that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces wants to protect members of the old regime and that it was only because of the relentless pressure that the Tahrir Square protesters brought to bear upon it that it allowed several former ministers and now Mubarak himself and his sons to be put on trial.

Let us suppose that Tantawi appear before the court trying Mubarak on charges of ordering his security forces to open fire on protesters during the January-February rebellion. He testifies that the former president had indeed issued the orders but he refused to carry them out.

Indeed, there is no record of an Egyptian soldier opening fire on the Tahrir Square protesters. The killing of more than 800 protesters was blamed on police and other security forces controlled by the interior ministry as well as thugs employed by the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) headed by Mubarak.

Can Tantawi hope to absolve himself by pointing the finger at Mubarak and the former interior minister, Habib Al Adli, who is facing the same charges as the former president? May be he could, but that does not answer the question whether the Egyptian people would accept it.

Of late, we have been hearing slogans calling for the ouster of Tantawi and they should indeed be worrisome for the field marshal. The moment he is out of power, he could expect his detractors to cry for his blood. He would not want to end up with the same fate as Mubarak and his former colleagues in the cabinet. So what are his options?

Tantawi may have some breathing space. He could conduct elections this year and elect a parliament that will draw up a new constitution that would govern presidential elections next year. He could then work out a deal with the elected president and government for immunity for himself and others close to him in the armed forces because the new regime is unlikely to retain him as defence minister and thus de facto head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Or he could opt not to do anything and prolong the process of elections by playing the activists’ groups one against the other, particularly that some of them are calling for a new constitution first and elections later while others insist on having the other way around. But that would not offer a solution.

Some say that the Egyptian military might field its own candidates for parliament and somehow ensure that they get elected. Some of the ruling generals might indeed be interested in that arrangement although none of them could run themselves or allow their proxies to be identified.

There is also speculation that the military could be forging an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is expected to be the best beneficiary from the next elections. Such an alliance could be mutually beneficial to both.

Tantawi and his fellow ruling generals must have a game plan. However, there might be dissent in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces against politicising the military, but as of now we could only speculate as to how the developments will show in post-rebellion Egypt.
The author, a former jordanian ambassador, is the chief editor of Al Urdun weekly in Amman

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