Will Egypt's military choose to make or break the referendum process?

By granting the Egyptian military the power to arrest citizens during the referendum process, Morsi has given it enormous influence over the outcome of the controversial constitutional vote. 

Petr David Josek/AP
Men sit in front of their tents set in Tahrir square in Cairo, Monday, Dec. 10. The Egyptian military on Monday assumed joint responsibility with the police for security and protecting state institutions until the results of a Dec. 15 constitutional referendum are announced.

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As Egypt prepares for rival protests today over its upcoming, controversial constitutional referendum, outside observers speculate about what role the Egyptian military – which President Mohamed Morsi empowered this week in a bid to maintain security during the process – will choose to play in the ongoing political crisis.

Egypt's Ahram Online reports that a group of armed men attacked anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square using pellet guns and Molotov cocktails early this morning, injuring 16 people. A physician who set up a clinic in the square, Hassanein Abu El-Hasan, told Ahram Online that injuries were primarily pellet wounds in the arms and feet.

The attacks come at the outset of a day expected to feature demonstrations by both pro- and anti-referendum protesters, reports Agence France-Presse.  A pro-Morsi coalition, including members of Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, plan to start the protests near the presidential palace, while members of the opposition National Salvation Front plan to gather later at Tahrir Square to call for a stay on the referendum process, which they say institutionalizes Islamist principles at the expense of human rights, women, and religious minorities.

Each demonstration is expected to draw tens of thousands of people. Should the opposing rallies meet, there is a high risk of violence.

The fresh protests "raise the spectre of 'bloody Wednesday'," the independent newspaper Al-Shuruq headlined, referring to last week's deadly clashes.

The pro-government daily Al-Akhbar said: "My God, save Egypt."

Morsi yesterday granted the military, a dominant force in the country until Morsi stripped it of many of its powers in August, the power to arrest citizens during the referendum process. The move will potentially force the military to choose a side in the debate and gives it substantial influence over the outcome of the vote. When the military tried to take that same power for itself earlier this year, it raised a broad outcry in Egypt. 

Voice of America, the official US international news agency, reports that the military is setting itself up to remain neutral in the crisis. Yezid Sayigh, a Beirut-based Carnegie Middle East Center analyst, told VOA that the generals' call last week for the political crisis to be resolved through dialogue "sent very strong signals to Morsi in particular that the army is not going to act as his proxy or as an ally in his political disagreement with the opposition in Egypt."

"The army also is saying we will not allow (the president) to go too far in imposing his will," Mr. Sayigh said. He added that the military has little interest in direct control of the government, saying "The army as a whole was not at all happy with their political role over the past year-and-a-half after Mubarak's downfall. I believe they are very reluctant to be in that position once again."

Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Egypt and current Princeton University professor, told VOA that the military is satisfied with Morsi's rule and the terms of the constitution, as long as the document retains the military's powers and place in Egyptian society.

"If the military is satisfied that the constitution protects its role, I think (the generals) would give a lot of leeway to other forces within society to define the role of Islam and the questions of civil rights and the protection of human rights," he said.

The Monitor's Dan Murphy argues that the constitutional powers granted to the military in the draft constitution makes the military Morsi's ally, not a neutral observer of the conflict.

The Egyptian military hierarchy is often described as hostile to the Brothers, but that case is frequently overstated. What the Egyptian military wants is the ability to conduct its own affairs without civilian meddling, and to continue to expand a sprawling business empire that ranges from refrigerator factories to water-bottling plants to high-end condominium development. Mubarak provided that platform until he fell. Now, if the Muslim Brotherhood is offering a similar deal, who are Egypt's officers to complain?

There have been plenty of efforts to induce the military to cooperate. While two years ago Brotherhood leaders would talk about the baleful role the military played in Egyptian political life and bitterly complain about US backing for the army, the draft constitution includes protections of the military's long-established perks that seem the result of a remarkable detente between the Muslim Brotherhood and the officers. ...

The second sentence of the preamble to the draft hails the military's support for the January 25 revolution – a remarkable piece of historical revisionism for the beginning of a document that's supposed to undergird the building of a democratic political culture in the country. Article 197 of the draft takes control of the military's budget out of the hands of the legislature, and Article 198 says "civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the armed forces." That caveat is big enough to drive a truck through.

In his column for The Nation, investigative journalist Robert Dreyfuss makes a similar point, arguing that "a burgeoning alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian military is threatening to create a new authoritarian regime."

Long ago, in blogging about the Arab Spring in Egypt, I predicted that the Muslim Brotherhood would form an alliance with the generals, not because I had inside information but because it was so obvious. And it is coming to pass. ...

Having claimed vast new powers, designed to ram through a constitutional draft by referendum next week, Morsi is now officially promising to use the military to enforce the vote, despite huge protests from an anti–Muslim Brotherhood coalition. Paranoically blaming “foreigners” for the protests, Morsi has deployed the military’s tanks around his office, adding: “It is my duty to defend the homeland.” Morsi and the government-controlled newspaper Al Ahram used precisely the same language as the generals did in pledging to protect Egypt’s “institutions.”

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