Will Egypt's Tahrir protests today dislodge military control?

It was one of Egypt's biggest demonstrations since Mubarak was toppled, a show of force against military efforts to maintain control. Amr Moussa recently discussed some of the key issues in an interview.

Khalil Hamra/AP
Protesters chant slogans Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the focal point of the uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Thousands are rallying in Tahrir square, with Islamists in the forefront, in a protest against what they say are attempts by the country's military rulers to reinforce their powers.

Today's big rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square – upwards of 100,000, judging by photographs of the crowd – was different than the ones that toppled Hosni Mubarak last February.

Then, a small group of secular activists rolled the dice with online organizing and street-level activism, called for a massive show of people power, and won. Egypt's Islamists, particularly the highly organized and disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, came late to the party. While they were a presence on Tahrir during the revolution, they were mostly bandwagon jumpers. 

Not this time. But what brought them out – along with many secular activists as well – was fundamentally the same issue that drove out Mubarak, and saw the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) take control earlier this year: Civilian control of Egypt's future. (Kristen Chick covered the protests on the ground for us.)

One of the central tensions behind today's protests was to what degree the military should or will have a hand in writing Egypt's new constitution once a new parliament is elected – a two-month process that begins Nov. 28. That document, whose writing will be overseen by the new parliament, will determine whether Egypt will retain its current strong presidency, or whether parliament will come to have a greater role.

How a top presidential candidate sees the future

Last week, I sat down with two other reporters to talk to presidential candidate Amr Moussa about Egypt's future. Mr. Moussa, who served a decade as Mubarak's foreign minister, and then was shuffled off to run the Arab League in 2001 when his star appeared dangerously ascendant to his boss (a decade ago, backroom jockeying to succeed Mubarak had already begun), is running for president, is now probably a front-runner for the Egyptian presidency. 

In the interview, Moussa touched on concerns about the military remaining in power for too long (he agreed) but also seemed to accept that the next Egyptian Constitution should not be left entirely in the hands of Egypt's next Parliament.

The country's history since the 1950s has been one of a strong presidency (the head of state controls the government) and a second-class Parliament. Moussa, very much a secular establishment figure, thinks that situation should persist, at least in the short term.

"I do favor a presidential system, I don’t think the time is right for a parliamentary system now … when the Egyptian landscape is not mature enough to produce a balanced political course of action. Therefore we need a strong president," he said. He added that, perhaps, Egypt's constitution could be amended after the next presidency to allow parliament a greater role.

Who will write the Constitution

But he also seemed to back a set of constitutional principles endorsed by the military that would take full control of drafting the new constitution from the next Parliament's hands. Asked if the Constitution, and the question of whether a Parliamentary system should be adopted, should be in the hands of the next Parliament, he answered: "No, it is for the committee on the Constitution to decide."

Asked to clarify whether that committee would be appointed by the parliament, he answered: "No they are not. They are going to appoint some of the members and the rest will be representatives of the syndicates, the unions, civil society and so forth." How exactly this extra-parliamentary body will be set up remains unclear, at least to me. And that lack of clarity, and accountability, makes it all the more likely that the military will exert influence on the process.

Secular establishment, meet the Brothers.

Islamist-secular tensions

The Brotherhood, other Islamist groups like the archconservative salafiyah (whose ranks carried posters today demanding that the Quran become Egypt's Constitution), and some secular democracy activists (but not all) are incensed with the military's attempt to set preconditions on Egypt's future.

If the country is going to be a democracy, and if the military's near-total immunity from civilian supervision is going to end, then Parliament – not generals and like-minded political friends (some secular opposition groups have been backing SCAF out of fear the Islamists are going to do well in elections) – will have to make the rules.

Issandr El Amrani put it this way after visiting Tahrir today:

To be honest, I largely agree with the Islamist position on the constitutional principles: they are unnecessary and pretty ridiculous, since the whole point of the coming elections is to elect a parliament that will, via the constituent assembly, write Egypt's next constitution. You can call anything you want binding but the legitimacy of an elected parliament trumps any agreement made behind closed doors. The whole debate has been a divisive waste of time, and it would have been much better for liberals who wanted to get some guarantee that basic rights would be preserved in the next constitution to deal with the Islamists directly rather than through SCAF.

 Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.

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