ANALYSIS | Fear of Islamists drove Egyptian military's recent power grab

The expected victory by parties affiliated with Egypt's popular Muslim Brotherhood in the Nov. 28 parliamentary elections is what drove the country's military rulers to try to extend their powers and set off the recent bout of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, say some analysts.

Experts on region weigh in on military council's move to extend rule, influence constitution

Thousands of Egyptians gather during a demonstration at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Nov. 18, 2011. Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters have flocked to the square in recent days to pressure the military government to hasten the transfer of power to a civilian democratically elected government. (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)

As protests in Cairo and other Egyptian cities escalate and the police crackdown against them intensifies, the likelihood that the country's first post-revolution parliamentary elections will go ahead as planned on Nov. 28 gets more and more remote.

"It would be a catastrophe to cancel the elections, because I think it would just make Egyptians even more convinced that the military does not want to allow the transition to continue," said Marina Ottaway, a senior Mideast analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"At the same time, we may be close to the situation where it's physically impossible to hold elections. The first round of elections is supposed to take place in Cairo, and you cannot have elections if you have thousands of people screaming in the streets and the government throwing tear gas, so it's a really difficult situation."

Ottaway thinks Egypt's military rulers still have time to turn the situation around if they announce that they will hold presidential elections right after the parliamentary elections, and not in 2013, as their recent actions have suggested would be the case.

"It seems to me that the most important thing would be a decisive step by the military to show that … its time in power is coming to an end," she said.

The first sign that the military was willing to take such a step came Tuesday, when the military announced it would revise its timeline and transfer power to a civilian government by July 2012.

Military's moves to prolong transition 'provocative'

Demonstrators are angry over recent attempts by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, to draw out the transition of power to a democratically elected civilian government by postponing presidential elections and unilaterally introducing measures to control the process of drafting a new constitution.

"It was a very provocative step to take at a time when its popularity was in decline and [with] the increasing economic crisis in the country ... the uncertainty of the transition … and with the elections looming," said Robert Springborg, professor of national security affairs at the Monterey, Calif.-based Naval Postgraduate School.

"This whole road map, as the SCAF calls it, for the transition was extended out over a period of almost two years. So, this was the means by which the SCAF was going to control the pace — and to a large extent the outcome — of this transition.

'Those people who are marching in the streets are not willing to wait until 2013 for the military to step down.'— Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The SCAF had initially committed to holding presidential elections this fall. But under new measures it introduced last week, they would have been delayed until after the parliamentary elections and the writing and ratification of the constitution. That would have taken until at least 2013 to complete and would have essentially left the military in control until then.

"Those people who are marching in the streets are not willing to wait until 2013 for the military to step down," Ottaway said.

Influencing the constitution

The SCAF set off the recent round of protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where the revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak began, when it introduced a set of so-called supraconstitutional principles last week. The principles aim to entrench certain powers in the hands of the military, giving it the right to oversee its own budget and all military matters without civilian oversight, requiring the government to get its approval before a declaration of war and enabling it to de facto reject any article of the draft constitution it doesn't like. The SCAF principles also deprive the future parliament of most of its power to write Egypt's new constitution.

These supraconstitutional principles override several provisions of the Constitutional Declaration, which was a series of amendments to the old constitution that set out the rules for the transition to a democratic system of government and was approved — in part by referendum — in March.

Protesters walk past a placard depicting Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, the head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, at Tahrir Square on Sept. 30, 2011. The banner reads 'Unite before the military tanks step on you.' (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

According to that original declaration, the 100-person committee drafting the constitution would be chosen by parliament from its members. But SCAF changed those provisions to say only 20 committee members would be chosen by parliament and 80 would be chosen by groups representing Egyptian society such as trade unions, police, the judiciary, universities, the armed forces — many of which are Mubarak-era institutions that have not been reformed and are allied with SCAF.

"The military wanted to translate what are informal red lines into formal constitutional principles to protect itself, preempting, therefore, the work of the constitutional convention," said Springborg. "And many liberals were willing to countenance that, because they were frightened the Islamists would try to use the opportunity of constitution-writing to declare Egypt an Islamic state and translate that into some restrictions on … broader rights."

The establishment of a set of founding principles that all parties would agree on, and that could not be altered by those drafting the constitution, had been discussed for months in Egypt. The idea was endorsed by secularists such as Mohamed ElBaradei, who had wanted a constitution established prior to elections, for fear the Islamists would have too much of a hand in drafting it after the vote.

Establishing a set of umbrella principles is not uncommon in countries undergoing a transition to a new political system, says Ottaway, but in Egypt's case, the military overstepped when it inserted articles guaranteeing rights for itself and made them impossible to amend.

Mohamed Mursi, head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Freedom Party, which is expected to get the most seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections. (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Reuters)

It was a stupid move, says Ottaway, since the military has largely controlled its own affairs for decades anyway, and that was unlikely to change in post-revolution Egypt.

"Everybody knows that even if they take the articles out of the supraconstitutional principles, the fact is the parliament is not going to be able to supervise the military budget," she said. "It would be extremely difficult. Civilians have not discussed the military budget since 1952."

Although the SCAF has recently started backing away from some of the principles, which have not officially been adopted but which it was assumed would be unilaterally imposed by the military in place of the Constitutional Declaration, it seems to be too little too late. By Monday, the civilian caretaker government that the SCAF had installed, which had been criticized for not doing enough to hasten the transition to civilian rule, was looking to distance itself from the military council and submitted its resignation to the council.

Fear of Islamists

The initial demonstration against the principles was led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and most powerful Islamist group in Egypt. It has the most to lose from the military's incursion into the parliament's right to control the constitution-writing process, since the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party is expected to win the most seats in the parliamentary election.

"The SCAF was originally quite happy to work with the Brotherhood to contain the revolutionaries, who are much more anti-military," said Springborg. "As time went on, and it became apparent that the Brothers are really very strong, the military took fright and decided to then try to cultivate more support among the sort of secular moderates and to guarantee its own continuation of power. And the Brotherhood, feeling that it was being cheated … then reacted with this 'Million Man March' on Friday, and then the events took off from there."

'The situation is highly intense.'—Emad Shahin, University of Notre Dame professor in Cairo

As the police moved to violently suppress the protests, and public anger grew, other factions joined in the demonstrations. More than 20 people have reportedly been killed and more than 1,000 injured.

"The situation is highly intense," said Emad Shahin by phone from Cairo against a backdrop of sirens and chaotic street sounds. "People are extremely upset and angry, because of the response they received from the supreme council of the military, the violence that has been committed against civilians and the slow response that they received to … their immediate demands."

A veiled Egyptian protester clashes with riot police at Tahrir Square on Nov, 19, 2011. The protests entered their fifth day Tuesday. (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany /Reuters)

Shahin is the Henry R. Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and has been in the Egyptian capital since Friday. He was also there during the initial revolution in January and sees similarities between the two protests.

"Now they're escalating … their demands because of the slow responses from the supreme council," he said. "This is exactly what happened … during Mubarak and then, of course, he was brought down."

Indeed, although the demonstrators started out protesting against the supraconstitutional principles, many are now calling for the immediate removal of the SCAF and the creation of a new civilian transitional government, or as its advocates are calling it, a "government of national salvation."

In practice, it will be hard to get Egypt's many political forces to unite behind such a move — even though by Tuesday, the military looked ready to make the concession. There are dozens of parties that have sprung up in the post-revolution period, and they don't all agree about the necessity of such a transitional body.

"The idea of a salvation government … [is] an idea that has been floated by what I call the liberal democrats — liberal groups that don't want to have elections because they are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood," said Ottaway.

"It's very simple: Islamists think they'll do well in elections, and probably they will — I'm not predicting they'll get a majority, but they certainly will do well. The secular groups are very fragmented; they are very disorganized. They will not do as well in the elections, and therefore, they are scared, and they want a transition system that does not depend on election results."

Tunisia's example

Springborg, for his part, believes the current process is too tainted to proceed with the election.

"This process is now illegitimate," he said. "It's been dictated by a non-representative body; it is being manipulated to the interest of that body; so the process and, therefore, the outcome is illegitimate. So, people will challenge it. You'll pay a price for this down the line."

'The longer this goes on, the greater the disruption to the economy and the intensification of opposition, the more likely the military itself will get rid of Tantawi.'— Robert Springborg, professor, Naval Postgraduate School

He would like to see Egypt follow the Tunisian model. In Tunisia, where the wave of Arab Spring protests began in December 2010, a civilian executive independent of the military drew up the transition road map and successfully organized elections with relatively little violence. It did have to delay elections by a few months to give the executive time to organize them, but a new parliament was elected in October and is in the process of drafting a constitution.

Both Ottaway and Springborg agree that another possible outcome is that elements within the military itself, which has about 450,000 members, not all of whom agree with the SCAF, will move against the increasingly unpopular military council.

"The longer this goes on, the greater the disruption to the economy and the intensification of opposition, the more likely the military itself will get rid of [SCAF head Field Marshal Mohamed] Tantawi," said Springborg.

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Meanwhile, countries like Canada and the U.S. are watching the situation anxiously. According to Ottaway, the U.S. now faces the same dilemma it did during the protests against Mubarak's reign, when it was divided between supporting the pro-democracy demonstrators and supporting an old ally and maintaining stability in Egypt.

"Yes, they want to support democracy, but also, the [Egyptian] military has been very reassuring to the United States that things are not going to become too radicalized," Ottaway said. "So, now, the United States again has to make the choice. For a while, it pretended it could do both, because the SCAF was well accepted by the population. Now, they have to make a choice once again, and I'm not quite sure they have decided which choice they will make."


Kazi Stastna

Senior Producer

Kazi Stastna is a senior producer with She has worked as a features writer and copy editor with CBC's digital news team for over a decade. Prior to that, she was at the Montreal Gazette and worked as a reporter and editor in Germany and the Czech Republic.