Democracy dial-back? Egypt military moves to hem in new parliament

A member of Egypt's ruling military council said today that it would have a role, albeit indirect, in appointing the body that will write a constitution instead of leaving it to elected lawmakers.

Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzouri speaks to Egyptian state media at a polling station on the first day of parliamentary elections in Cairo last week. The military council today passed some of its executive authority to newly appointed Prime Minister Ganzouri, who formed a new government today.

A week after the first post-Mubarak elections began, Egypt's military leadership has made clear its intention to assert control even after a new parliament is in place, raising questions about how democratic the country's transition will be.

Maj. Gen. Mukhtar El Mullah, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said today that the council will have an indirect role in deciding who writes the country’s new constitution – refusing to leave that decision to a parliament that will be dominated by Islamist parties.

In a two-hour interview with foreign journalists, Mullah defended the military's indirect intervention in the process, saying that the job of selecting the committee to draft a new constitution cannot be left only to the parliament, partially over concerns that extreme Islamist minorities will exert control over the process. SCAF will appoint a consultative council that will, among other duties, consult with the Parliament and cabinet to ensure that the assembly formed to write the constitution represents all Egyptians and not just the parliamentary majority.

Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood but also the ultraconservative salafi group Al Nour, won more than 60 percent of the vote in the first round of elections held last week to choose the first parliament since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in February.

"The next parliament will not represent all Egyptian people. And the constitution will affect all citizens in Egypt. We are in the first stage of democracy. After a period, the parliament may have the ability to do whatever they like to have any amendments. However, now, in such unstable situations, the parliament is not representing all the Egyptian people," said Mullah.

He said the SCAF would not impose specific people on the assembly, but must have a say to ensure that it represents all Egyptians. "We’re not saying that the SCAF will draft the constitution, we’re saying that all Egyptian people should participate in such drafting," said Mullah. 

Conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood?

That position could deepen fears over the military’s hold on power, and also spark a confrontation between the military council and the Muslim Brotherhood, which has demanded that SCAF recognize the popular legitimacy of the parliament even though the council officially retains executive power until presidential elections are held next year.

Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, says a constitutional declaration, approved by referendum in March, gave only parliament the authority to choose a constituent assembly, and that there should be “no conditions on parliamentary will.”

“[Parliament's] authority must be respected," says Mr. Erian in a phone interview, noting that the FJP has also called for a constituent assembly that is representative of society but that the military need not intervene in appointing the assembly. "The decision is for the parliament itself,” without any other powers pushing it, he said.

Last month, the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties organized a massive protest after the military announced it would limit the power of Parliament to choose the constituent assembly.

Constitution-writing body to be chosen in April

Mullah said today that the council will retain executive power until a president is elected in June 2012, but would not have any political role after that. He also said that the new parliament will not have the authority to name a new cabinet before a new president is elected, something FJP leaders had demanded after the first stage of elections, though they later backed off.

The military council today passed some of its executive authority to newly appointed Prime Minister Kamal El Ganzouri, who formed a new government today. It remains unclear what additional powers Mr. Ganzouri will have, but SCAF will retain control of the judiciary and armed forces.

Mullah said the consultative council would include representatives of all the political parties, presidential candidates, artists, and intellectuals. He said that he “hoped” a new constitution would be in place by the time presidential elections take place in June, but admitted there is a small likelihood they would not, since the constituent assembly will not be chosen until after parliamentary elections are complete in April.

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