No matter who wins the presidency, the Egyptian military will remain in charge.
The Egyptian military and organized Islamic political groups came out of the 2011 Cairo Spring as the real power brokers of the country. Gone are the student and youth crowds that dominated Tahrir Square, along with the women of all ages who demonstrated by the thousands seeking political equality. Gone also are the masses of foreign TV and print journalists with their instant analyses of complicated issues. One could say that Egypt is slowly returning to its contentious normality.
The forthcoming elections of May 23-24 should produce two contestants for the second round in June that will determine who will assume the presidency of Egypt on July 1. What happens then is clearly a matter for speculation. Supposedly there was to be a new constitution created before the presidential election. The military commission now running the country demanded it — but no charter came forth. As the military commission is supposed to dissolve and pass on all its authority to the new president, the question exists regarding under what legal powers the new chief executive will govern the country.
This problem can not be said to be unexpected. The parliament had appointed a 100 person commission to work out the details of the new constitution — then disbanded this body when it became obvious that the Islamist-dominated parliament had not surprisingly appointed an Islamist-dominated constitutional commission. What was surprising was that a federal court has dissolved the commission and ordered a new body be created that satisfied the demands for equal representation of women and “other minorities” as well as non-religious lobbying groups. How this all was to be accomplished before July 1 is a mystery of the pyramids.
After first announcing that they would nominate the hard-line Sharia law advocate, Khairat El-Shater, as their presidential candidate, the Moslem Brotherhood went to their second choice, Mohammed Morsi. The election commission disqualified many of the top candidates who had announced their intentions to run and the Brotherhood had been given the tip that el-Shater would be considered a definite reject. In a surprise shift, the more ideologically strict Salafists countered with the comparatively moderate Abdel-Moneim Abolfotoh to head off the new Brotherhood choice. El-Shater, no shrinking violet, openly attacked the military commission for being behind his black ball. He’ll be trouble for whomever gets the presidential post.
Enter Amr Moussa, former Mubarak foreign minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. The cigar-smoking Moussa is one of the best known Egyptians on the international scene. Smart, tough and smooth-as-silk, the multi-lingual Moussa has no shortage of financial backers eager to see an experienced professional assume Egypt’s leadership. The deal-making involved with his candidacy includes much behind-the-scenes negotiating with the Coptic Christians and secularist groups. The knock on Moussa is his greatest political strength: He is known as rabidly anti-Israeli — not a bad thing when you’re in Egyptian politics.
Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, is said to have strong backing from his old Air Force buddies, but is of course under attack as a Mubarak toady. There are a total of thirteen candidates, including four minor party aspirants. One well-known individual is not running. Mohammed ElBaradei, of longtime IAEA and Nobel Prize fame, has opted out of the process, preferring to create a new party of his own and seek the presidential post in four years. He didn’t have much choice because he earlier had lost his expected moderate Islamist backing.
In the end, however, it will be the heavily American-financed ($1.3 billion) Egyptian military that retains ultimate control of the country. Even the Moslem Brotherhood does not have the strength to override the massive firepower Egypt’s army and security forces can put on the streets any time they want. However, the military’s power also brings to whatever civilian group that wins the presidency a guarantee that they will ensure its existence as long as it does not run counter to the army’s interest in maintaining its predominance. As long as military cohesion exists, the new president and his backers will retain power.
A career in the Army or Air Force has been the stepping-stone for Egyptian political life since Gamel Abdel Nasser. It was often said that “the best and brightest” could be found in Egypt’s young officer corps. One of the reasons, besides anti-dynastic feelings, that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, was not acceptable as his successor was his lack of military credentials. It would appear that while the military is willing to defer to a civilian administration as “the choice of the people,” they have no intention of losing their grip on the security of the country — and ultimately its foreign policy.
All of which brings up the prospect of a newly elected Egyptian government continuing a peaceful relation with Israel. The truth is that neither Egypt’s nor Israel’s leaders really can count on the old 1979 agreements — though Cairo’s military $1.3 billion can be kissed goodbye the moment that status quo is upset!
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.
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