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U.S.: “No Going Back” on Democratic Transition in Egypt, Says Clinton

Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square on Jun. 2. Credit: Gigi Ibrahim/CC BY 2.0

WASHINGTON, Jun 15 2012 (IPS) - As angry demonstrators gathered once again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest what many are calling a “soft coup” by the military, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton insisted that Washington still expects “a full transfer or power to a democratically elected civilian government” in Egypt.

“There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people,” Clinton said in reaction to the news that the Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court had dissolved the country’s elected parliament on the eve of presidential elections this weekend.

“Now, ultimately, it is up to the Egyptian people to determine their own future, and we expect that this weekend’s presidential election will be held in an atmosphere that is conducive to being peaceful, fair, and free.”

But a number of Egypt experts here said the latest moves by both the court and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which assumed all legislative powers following the court’s decision, have thrown the entire “transition” process into grave doubt and should prompt the administration of President Barack Obama to reassess its expectations and its policy.

“The United States should be examining the actions of the SCAF very carefully and keep in reserve the option of suspending military assistance should the SCAF not take the action it should in this situation,” said Michelle Dunne, the head of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council and co-chair of the Egypt Working Group, an ad hoc task force of Middle East specialists who advised the White House on Egypt policy over the past 18 months.

“The parliament was quite active and enjoyed a lot of popular support,” she told IPS. “Its dissolution creates a highly unstable atmosphere in which the final round of the presidential election will be held this weekend.”

Other analysts stressed that the latest developments risked plunging Washington’s strongest Arab ally into major upheaval and violence, potentially as disastrous as that which consumed Algeria after the cancellation of the 1991 elections in which the ruling National Liberation Front was badly beaten by its Islamist challenger.

“What next? A replay of Algeria in 1991?” asked Marc Lynch, a Middle East specialist at George Washington University, on his influential blog at “(T)oday’s moves by Constitutional Court on behalf of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) seem difficult to overcome and likely to push Egypt onto a dangerous new path.”

The decision to dissolve parliament was the latest in a series of events over the past week which has seriously shaken the administration’s public insistence that the military was indeed willing to cede power to elected, civilian-led institutions as part of a transition to democracy and a decisive break with 30-year reign of former President Hosni Mubarak.

In addition to dissolving a parliament in which Islamist parties held three of every four seats, the court also ruled that Mubarak’s last prime minister, Gen. Ahmed Shafiq (ret.), could not be disqualified from running for president despite a law passed by parliament banning candidates who served in high-ranking positions during the last 10 years of Mubarak’s rule.

Shafiq, a late entry into the crowded presidential race, took second place in the first round of the election, just behind Mohamed Morsi, the nominee of the Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party which held nearly half the seats in the ousted parliament and appears to be the biggest loser from the latest turn of events.

The twin rulings followed SCAF’s issuance of a decree Wednesday that effectively re-imposed martial law by, among other things, granting military officers the right to arrest civilians for trial in military courts. The decree appeared designed to effectively restore longstanding Mubarak-era emergency laws that finally had lapsed at the end of May.

In her remarks Thursday, Clinton said the administration was “concerned” about the decree. “Even if they are temporary,” she said, “they appear to expand the power of the military to detain civilians and to roll back civil liberties.”

Taken together, along with several other recent moves by the military, the courts, and the electoral commission – all of which are dominated by holdovers from the ancien regime – the latest moves have persuaded a growing number of experts here that the military is unwilling to give up power and that a de facto coup is underway, if not quite completely consummated.

While some of these same experts said Thursday’s two decisions by the courts were legally defensible, the context and timing in which they were handed down were highly suspicious.

“If the details are unclear, the overall effect is not,” wrote Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on “What was beginning to look like a coup in slow motion is no longer moving in slow motion.”

“With Egypt looking ahead to no parliament, no constitution, and a deeply divisive new president, it’s fair to say the experiment in military-led transition has come to its disappointing end,” according to Lynch who also noted that “(t)he SCAF’s power grab in the final days looks more like panic than the execution of a carefully prepared master scheme.

“It likely reflected a combination of fear of rising Islamist power, self-preservation, and growing confidence in its ability to control street protests,” he added.

The question here, however, is how Washington, which provides nearly 1.6 billion dollars – including 1.3 billion dollars in military aid – in bilateral assistance a year, will react, a question that neither Clinton nor any other senior administration official appeared prepared to answer Thursday.

Congress has placed human rights and related conditions on disbursement of the aid, although the administration can waive those conditions if it serves the “national security” interest.

Earlier this year, it suspended aid for several months after the authorities conducted raids against U.S. and other “pro-democracy” groups active in Egypt. The administration notified Congress in March, however, that it was resuming aid for “national security” reasons.

Despite her strong words in favour of a democratic transition Thursday, Clinton did not say what specific steps Washington might be prepared to take. “(W)e are obviously monitoring the situation,” she said. “We are engaged with Cairo about the implications of today’s court decision.”

Dunne said that engagement should include at least two elements. “The first thing the United States should do is to approach the SCAF and seek assurances that, first, they will not use violence against protestors – as they have been doing – because protests are inevitable following these rulings, and, second, that they will hold a free a fair presidential election this weekend and free and fair parliamentary elections within 60 days and hand over executive authority to the president and legislative authority to the parliament.”

In addition, Tom Malinowski, who heads the Washington office of Human Rights Watch and has served as a member of the Egypt Working Group, the administration needs to reassess its assumptions about the military. “These latest moves definitely call into the question the premise under which the State Department waived the restrictions on military aid this year.”

“There clearly was a broad expectation that, while the military would work to retain a good deal of power behind the scenes,” he told IPS, “it would at least allow a formal transmission to an elected civilian parliamentary government. These events are not in keeping with that expectation.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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