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Egypt’s Military Vows to Abide by New Constitution

Emad Mekay

WASHINGTON, Jul 25 2011 (IPS) - Egypt’s transitional military rulers reiterated Monday their pledge to hand over power to a civilian elected government and denied they are seeking to carve out a patriarchal role in the country’s future political life.

General Mohammed Al-Assar, an influential member of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said their role will not be decided by the military themselves, as critics say, but “by the Egyptian constitution”, to be drafted after the election of a new parliament later this year.

“We have no business about the content of the constitution,” Al- Assar, assistant to the country’s defence minister, told an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. “The new constitution of Egypt will specify the role of the armed forces.”

Al-Assar said the military’s duties, as part of the constitution, will be put to a public referendum after parliamentary elections, expected to be the first fair and free elections in decades.

“They will either give the military some [political] responsibility, which will be welcome, or they will not be willing to do that and that will be welcome,” he said.

Al-Assar said the military was in fact “eager to expedite” the transitional period and end its current rule of the nation of 85 million people.

Al-Assar’s comments came during a visit to Washington, where concern is rising over SCAF’s rejection of foreign monitors for the parliamentary elections and its objection to foreign funding for Egyptian NGOs.

“We are worried about foreign funding coming from outside Egypt whether from the Europeans or from the Americans or from other Arab states,” he said. “The Egyptian people are nationalistic and are against foreign interference in our political life.”

Such positions have caused speculation that the military may be working to exclude other powers and guarantee itself a decisive political role in the country’s political life, something that Al- Assar denied. Al-Assar said its position was solely motivated by a desire to protect “national sovereignty”.

But concern is rising in Egypt that the military may be reneging on its pledge to support the country’s march towards full-fledged democracy.

Over the past two weeks, the military has faced unprecedented protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country that focused on the military’s reluctance to hold former regime leaders and members of the police force accountable for the shooting and killing of some 800 democracy protesters during the 18-day uprising.

SCAF also raised questions in Egypt after it announced it will form a committee to write a set of principles “governing and guiding the drafting of the constitution”.

Most of the country’s political organisations and parties viewed the decision as a sign that the military wants to shield the armed forces and its budget from future parliamentary and public scrutiny.

Another issue that further fuelled suspicion of the military’s intentions is a regulation issued by SCAF, under its presidential powers, organising the coming parliamentary elections.

The measure was widely criticised by political parties and groups because of districting issues that could allow former members of ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party, who come from powerful families in rural areas, to maintain seats in the new parliament.

Political groups including the Muslim Brotherhood and liberal-leaning Al-Wafd party, along with democracy activist Ayman Nour, also rejected the law allowing the next president to appoint 10 members to parliament, a provision that Mubarak had used to bolster the list of his supporters in parliament.

But on Monday, Al-Assar said that after the revolution that started on Jan. 25 and ended Feb. 11 with the Western-backed Mubarak’s resignation, the military pledged to adopt principles that Egypt is a “country of law” and that the military will respect that.

He said most of the issues objected to are better off left to the new elected parliament to deal with rather than the military.

“There is major change in Egypt and never, never will it return back to the past,” he said. “We are not dictators. The Egyptian Armed Forces are owned by the Egyptian people…We’d like to be ready to play only a role the people of Egypt ask us to.”

Al-Assar’s comments, while measured and optimistic, may betray a split among SCAF’s members with Al-Assar leading the faction calling for profound and true changes and others led by the SCAF’s head, Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and General Hassan Al-Rewiny, head of the Central District Command, which includes Cairo.

Both Tantawi and Al-Rewiny appear to want a more subdued transformation, with the military’s privileges accrued under Mubarak maintained.

Al-Rewiny recently accused some protestors who have rallied for a faster pace of change of being foreign agents, and claimed that they were working against the national interest of the country. He specifically mentioned the April 6 Group, which is made up of die- hard protesters who occasionally use anarchistic tactics, and said they were receiving foreign funding and training outside the country.

Tantawi, although he opposed corruption by businessmen and companies associated with Mubarak and criticised the country’s fast privatisation programme even when serving under Mubarak, is widely seen as a man opposed to drastic changes in the country.

But both factions are dealing with rising impatience among Egyptians. Many ordinary Egyptians say they haven’t yet felt the benefits of the revolution and that the military was moving too slowly towards democracy for a revolution of this size.

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