Egypt's military rulers make 11th-hour power grab

The move, which came just as polls were closing in Egypt's first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, overshadows the Muslim Brotherhood's claim of victory.

Nasser Nasser/AP
Supporters of Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi, one flying the national flag, and another carrying a poster with Morsi's picture, celebrate as the apparent victory over rival candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Monday, June 18.

Egypt's interim military rulers have made an 11th-hour power grab that ends all pretense of a full transfer to civilian power by July as they had promised, overshadowing the victory claimed by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's presidential runoff this weekend.

The military made its move last night, just as polls were closing in the final round of the country's first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year. Coming on the heels of the military's dissolution of an elected parliament and declaration of near martial law, it consolidates the military's power before a new president takes office by the end of the month.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has granted itself legislative authority until a new parliament is elected and control over the process of writing Egypt’s permanent constitution, and eliminated any civilian oversight of the military.

“For us, really, it's a declaration of war,” says Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It's a completing or closing a bracket of 18 months of uncertainty and making it abundantly clear that whoever is elected president is not going to have much power, because the only house of power is going to be the military.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has claimed an unofficial tally that shows their candidate, Mohamed Morsi, with 52 percent of the vote – barely eking out a win over his opponent Ahmed Shafiq, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister and a former Air Force commander.

But official results are not due until Thursday, and with such a slim margin, challenges or appeals could change the outcome of the race. Mr. Shafiq’s campaign disputes the vote count and claims that it will come out on top.

A win by Mr. Morsi, if confirmed, would be a victory for the Brotherhood, which was oppressed under Mubarak and fears a renewed crackdown if Shafiq wins.

Yet after such a polarizing election, the Brotherhood will also need unity with the rest of Egypt’s political forces if it is to take on the military’s power. Bitter rifts have developed between secular and Islamist parties in the last year of transition. FJP member Essam El Erian says the party was meeting with political forces Monday morning in an attempt to unify response to the declaration.

SCAF "is not authorized to make such a constitutional declaration,” he says. “We are facing a SCAF which wants to take power against the popular will.”

In a press conference Monday, two SCAF generals defended the council, saying they would hand over power to the president at the end of this month as promised. They pointed out that the new president will have the authority to appoint all cabinet position and to veto legislation.

But their attempt to deflect criticism fell on deaf ears for many in Egypt. "We look at these new powers and we think there is no way we can live with this," Mr.  Bahgat says. "There is no option but to really fight for a civilian democracy."

High stakes for Brotherhood in dissolution of parliament

The Brotherhood is fighting SCAF's decision to dissolve the parliament, after a decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court struck down the law used to govern the elections. The FJP held almost half the seats in the body, whose election was one of the only achievements of nearly a year and a half of political transition.

SCAF, the group of generals that has been ruling Egypt since last year's popular uprising, staked out its new powers by issuing amendments to the temporary constitution adopted by referendum in March 2011.

The amendment puts the military council in full control of all matters related to the military, avoiding civilian oversight. It also cements the current membership of SCAF, ensuring that the newly elected president does not chair the council, as he did before the uprising. The document states that the president cannot declare war without the approval of SCAF.

It also gives the president and SCAF power to commission the armed forces to assume law enforcement duties, reinforcing a decision issued by the Justice Ministry last week to allow military police to arrest citizens for a wide range of offenses, including those as minor as traffic violations.

Veto power over every article drafted for new constitution

Perhaps the most long-range impact of the declaration is the control it gives the military over the process of writing Egypt’s new constitution. An assembly elected by the parliament last week to write the document may remain unless it faces obstacles hindering it from completing its work, according to the declaration. In that case, the SCAF would appoint a new assembly.

In either case, the military council gives itself veto power over every article of the new document. SCAF, along with the prime minister, Supreme Judicial Council, and one-fifth of the assembly, have the right to object to any article of the new constitution. If the assembly does not revise the article, it gives the Supreme Constitutional Court the power to end the deadlock. Many of the members of the court were appointed by Mubarak.

New parliamentary elections should take place one month after the new constitution is adopted, and SCAF will retain legislative power until that point, according to the declaration.

“SCAF has effectively established full control over both the process and the content of the permanent constitution,” says Bahgat. "In parallel to this, SCAF has basically written into the constitution provisions that would allow for the militarization of law enforcement, powers of arrest and detention, trials of civilians, and abrogation of a criminal liability, and protected all military affairs from any scrutiny or oversight even by the elected president.”

Because of SCAF’s control over the drafting of the new constitution, what are accepted as temporary measures may end up as permanent ones, he says.

But, he adds, "I just don't see how any of these steps could be accepted even as temporary measures."

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