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PV Vivekanand: Transition in disarray
April 20, 2012
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A new constitution before presidential election or the other way around? A decisive answer to this question will determine the future political shape and course of Egypt after the disbandment of a constitutional committee and the disqualification of key presidential candidates threw the post-revolt transition process into total disarray.

Officials of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control of the country when long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of a popular revolt in February last year, have reportedly said that presidential elections will take place as scheduled on May 23 and 24.

The London-based Al Hayat Arabic daily says that the military council wants the new constitution to be drafted and approved before the president assumes office on June 30. Obviously, the military does not want the old constitution’s provisions that give the president enormous powers. The ruling generals do not want to place those powers in the hands of a civilian president. All the three presidents who ruled the country since the monarchy was toppled in the 1950s in a coup came from the ranks of the armed forces, with the result that the presidency and the military leadership functioned as a single entity.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is also said to be hinting at the necessity of a presidential council.

The council’s key challengers are the Islamists. The powerful Muslim Brotherhood has almost one half of seats in parliament, but was refused the right to form a government. Fellow Islamist Salafists have about one quarter of seats.

It is highly unlikely that a new constitution will be ready before the election, but it could be possible before July 1, the date that the military has said it will hand over power to an elected president.

A court has disbanded a 100-member drafting committee that was crammed with Islamist members of parliament and supporters, raising fears that the charter they prepare will be based on Islamic law. The country’s Christians, liberals and even Al Azhar, Sunni Islam’s highest authority, had stayed out of the body because of its Islamist domination.

The disbandment of the committee, which was sought by liberal parties, is under judicial review now. Subject to a final ruling, another panel will have to be constituted — with no MPs included in it this time around if the generals would have their way — to prepare the new constitution and have it approved in a national referendum. Given the tight timeframe, it was an impossible task to be accomplished before the May elections. Therefore, the options were either to delay the election until a new charter comes into force or conduct the vote as scheduled, with the old constitution being the defining document that could be replaced by a new one later.

Of course, there is also the fear among Egyptians that they might have to elect a president without defining presidential powers, with the military determining them as it finds fit.

The military’s middle-ground position that the May elections go ahead as planned while a new constitution is drafted and endorsed in a referendum by June 30 also offers the generals also the opportunity to plan further depending on who becomes the next occupant of the sprawling Helliopolis Presidential Palace east of the River Nile.

The military council would have no quarrel with the dominant Islamists as long as they endorse a constitution that guarantees the privileged status of the armed forces without government oversight. It wants the executive authority not to have any say in the defence ministry and its budget and insists on having the final say on any matter of “national interest” — an effective veto power over every affair of the state.

Ideally, the ruling generals would also like to see one of their men or a figure from the former regime — someone they could influence — occupying the presidential palace.

The Islamists, who have emerged as the strongest political force in the post-Mubarak parliament, are unlikely to give the military such constitutional guarantees if they were to dominate the drafting process. They want to whittle down presidential authorities and empower the legislature as the supreme body of the new state, with the right to nominate/dismiss the government, an authority that the generals want for themselves.

The Brotherhood, the oldest and most organised group in the country, has shown that it has learnt its lessons in the decades of political obscurity as an illegal organisation. It has been playing its cards with foresight in post-rebellion Egypt.

The group had been saying it was not interested in seeking the presidency until it saw a possible delay in preparing the new constitution. It meant the election could be possibly held under the provisions of the old constitution in which case the Brotherhood wanted the powerful presidency.

And in a strategic shift, the group nominated its deputy supreme guide, Khairat Al Shater, as its presidential candidate.

For good measures, the Brotherhood also named its leader Mohammed Mursi as a back-up candidate in case Shater was disqualified. The bet paid off; Shater, one of the most popular Brotherhood leaders, was barred from running because he had been jailed on charges of money-laundering by the Mubarak regime.

But Morsi was there to take his place, having already filed his nomination papers and gained approval by the deadline.

However, the Salafists were caught off-guard.

Lawyer Hazem Abu Ismail, the sole Salafist candidate, was disqualified because his mother held a US passport. Under a law adopted after Mubarak’s ouster, the candidate, the candidate’s spouse or the candidate’s parents cannot hold any citizenship other than Egyptian. This is seen as aimed at countering foreign influence in Egypt’s affairs.

With Abu Ismail’s ouster, the Salafists are left out of the presidential race. There are concerns that they could resort to violent protests. They have announced plans to launch a sit-in at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the heart of the anti-Mubarak revolution, on Friday.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists are now closely studying their options and the ruling generals are keeping their cards close to their chest smug that they hold all the four aces. After all, aren’t they the ones who will decide when to hold the elections and under what constitutional provisions? They could always produce new cards.

In the bargain, the young Egyptians who brought down the Mubarak regime hoping for sweeping changes are left trying to figure out what happened to their revolution.

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