Candidates in Egypt Work to Mollify the Military

CAIRO — Two weeks before Egypt’s presidential election begins, the leading candidates are adopting a deferential tone toward the current military rulers even as the generals make clear that they expect to maintain much of their autonomy and influence after their pledged handover of power.

Fifteen months after the generals seized power at the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, how much they now submit for the first time to civilian authority will determine whether last year’s uprising lives up to its billing as a democratic revolution or amounts instead to a coup. It is among the most consequential questions for Egypt’s allies, like the United States and Israel, and for the next Egyptian president.

But one of the three leading candidates, Amr Moussa, a former diplomat, says the issue is too delicate to address publicly. Another, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, says he intends to consult closely with the generals over matters concerning the military rather than impose his will, including in the choice of a defense minister. The third leading contender, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a more liberal former Brotherhood leader who has been the most assertive toward the military, says he, too, intends to consult with the generals, and to initially appoint one of them as defense minister.

And advisers to all three candidates say they expect only limited scrutiny of the defense budget, at most by a special committee of Parliament.

The generals, for their part, sound confident that they will retain their influence, immunity and commercial empire, which includes operations like real estate development, consumer electronics and bottled water.

The relationship between the people and the military is historic and eternal; it didn’t begin with the current Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen said in a news conference last week.

Since the British-backed monarchy, General Shaheen said, Egyptian constitutions have always assigned the military a role far larger than defending the borders. One journalist for Egypt’s state news media asked how the military could hand power to a new president without any assurance of what would come next.

“There is no worry,” General Shaheen said, noting that every constitutional revision since 1923 has included provisions for the military to take over in a “catastrophe.”

Policy makers in the United States have built close ties to Egypt’s military and consider the generals to be a force of stability, in particular in relations with Israel.

But the generals’ past insistence on preserving their political influence has also elicited calls from Washington for an expedited handover of power. There are worries that the specter of military power behind the scenes could fuel doubts about the government’s legitimacy and transparency, and thus continued instability.

Recent outbursts of violence underline that concern. At least 13 Egyptians were killed and hundreds were injured in the past five days in clashes with soldiers and their civilian supporters during demonstrations against military rule, adding to more than 100 deaths in similar clashes since the generals took over in February 2011.

Still, the generals and civilian political leaders all say they look forward to democratic accountability and the peaceful rotation of power. At their news conference last week, the generals repeated that they intended to leave power on June 30. They noted with pride that Egypt is now in the midst of the first competitive presidential election in its history, after free and fair parliamentary elections just a few months ago.

“If we wanted to commit fraud, we would have done it at the parliamentary elections,” General Shaheen said, brushing off suspicions that the military would sabotage the handover. “A military coup, is this our plan? After all this?”

The ultimate balance of civilian and military power, in public and behind the scenes, may take years to work out. And even amid the mounting dissatisfaction with the generals’ management of the political transition, the military retains its prestige. At the news conference, called to address last week’s deaths, Egyptian journalists repeatedly broke into applause for the ruling generals.

Mr. Moussa, for one, blamed the protesters in part for the recent deaths during attempts to storm the Defense Ministry. “I do not understand how some are attempting to break into the ministry,” he said at a campaign event on Saturday, in remarks quoted by the state news media. “Where’s the state and what is the point of this invasion?”

“Everyone is starting to think that there is complete chaos in Egypt,” he said, adding, “How could an Egyptian want to occupy the Defense Ministry?”

In a recent news conference, Mr. Moussa told journalists that their questions about the military’s future role were out of bounds. “I don’t think it is in the interest of the public or the future president to dive into the details at this time,” he said.

Asked about the idea of a “safe exit” for the generals — meaning immunity from prosecution over corruption accusations or other misdeeds during their time in power, Mr. Moussa said he wanted to talk about a “safe exit” for Egypt. “We are electing a civilian president,” he said. “This is the beginning.”

Mr. Moussa has never publicly questioned the military’s business interests, or talked of any legal accountability for past wrongdoing.

Mr. Morsi pledged that if he were elected he would consult closely with the generals over the appointment of a defense minister and would not dictate a choice.

“Consultation, and not one side forcing its opinion on the other,” Mr. Morsi said of his plans to work with the generals. His advisers say privately that he also has no plans to dismantle the military’s business projects, or to press charges against them.Mr. Aboul Fotouh has insisted publicly that the president should have the right to name a civilian defense minister if he chooses. But in television interviews he has said that given the current political climate, he, too, would pick a military officer.

He also has called publicly for the military budget to be included for the first time in the national budget. But his advisers say he is open to limiting the scrutiny of some or all of the defense budget to a special committee of Parliament. And he has said explicitly that he, too, would consult the generals on policy decisions in areas that concern them.

“We are against the military having any role outside its duty of securing the safety of the country,” Mr. Aboul Fotouh said in a recent interview with Al Masry Al Youm, a major, independent daily newspaper. “That doesn’t mean isolating the military from politics, which is what Mubarak did by not sounding them out on political matters. There’s a difference between the military having a political opinion and forcing this opinion.”

Unlike the other candidates, he has questioned the wisdom of allowing the military’s commercial businesses — which come with financial and tax advantages — to compete against private enterprises. But he has also left the door open for the generals to preserve some of those ventures.

“No one’s against the military having economic activities, but to serve itself only, not to compete with the private and public sector,” he said in the same interview. “The military having institutions to serve its needs is something that exists all over the world.”

In their news conference, the generals dismissed the public outrage last fall over their efforts to insert into the planned constitution explicit guarantees of the military’s power and autonomy as a guardian of political stability.

“To those who say that the armed forces seek ‘a special status’ in the constitution,” General Shaheen said, “the armed forces have an established status present since the Constitution of 1923,” under the British-backed monarchy.

Gen. Mohktar el Mulla defended the military’s commercial empire. “When I help with the economic development through building roads or bridges and so on, it’s for the interest of the people,” he said.

As for charges of wrongdoing, they had been handled privately by military courts, the generals said.

“The prosecution finished,” General Mulla said. “Whoever is convicted will be punished.”

Mayy El Sheikh contributed reporting. – The New York Times


Posted by on May 18 2012. Filed under African News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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