Egypt’s Democracy: Between the Military, Islamists, and Illiberal Democrats
|Saturday, November 12,2011 20:16|
|By Marina Ottaway|
Egypt faces three major and related political challenges to a successful democratic transition: the role the military is playing and will continue to play; the presence of powerful Islamic forces, not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also the Salafi groups and al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya; and, somewhat more unexpectedly, the growing reluctance of some self-proclaimed democrats to put the future of the country in the hands of a democratic process. The way these challenges are handled in the coming months will determine whether Egypt moves toward democracy or sinks into a new authoritarianism. Unless Islamists and liberals manage to find a modus vivendi in the coming months, the outcome will be a new authoritarianism, with an alliance between the military and so-called liberals as a more likely outcome than a takeover by radical Islamists.
Judging simply on the official pronouncements of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has been acting as a sort of collective presidency in Egypt since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the military does not constitute an obstacle to a democratic transition. On the contrary, it has taken upon itself the task of guiding the country toward such transition, maintaining stability, and ensuring continuity until a parliament and a president are elected. Indeed, many reports point out that the military appears uneasy with the central role it is playing now, and that it is anxious to return, if not to its barracks, at least to the less conspicuous position it occupied under the Mubarak regime, as the ultimate guarantor of stability with no involvement in the day-to-day running of the country.
But there is also evidence that contradicts the official narrative. First, there is no way to determine whether the SCAF speaks for itself or for the entire military. There is no information from open sources about what may be happening within the military below the top ranks represented in the SCAF, and there are reasons to believe that classified sources are equally uninformative. As a result, nobody knows for sure whether there are groups in the military with different political ambitions. It is the author’s experience that questions on this topic never elicit concrete answers, but are never dismissed as preposterous. The sudden appearance in late October of a “campaign” to elect Field Marshall Tantawi as president leaves little doubt that at least some elements in the military want power to remain in the hands of the military.
Second, while the SCAF does not want to replace a civilian government, it has no intention of subordinating itself to one; instead, it wants to remain free of civilian oversight, particularly where its budget and its economic interests are concerned. There is a great deal of speculation concerning how much of the Egyptian economy the military truly controls, with estimates ranging from 5 to 40 percent. But it is known that the economic assets of the military include industrial enterprises, construction companies, Red Sea resorts, and, probably most importantly, vast tracts of land, in addition to the more traditional industrial enterprises that have long been in military hands.
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