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The military was the lone Hosni Mubarak-era institution to survive the revolution that toppled the country’s longest-reigning dictator last year. It remains the real power to this day and is skillfully orchestrating the May 23-24 presidential elections to paint a democratic veneer glossing over that simple truth.
The plan seems to be working.
The elaborate and deceitful military production casting the elections as the best hope to turn Egypt around is only part of the reason. Millions of frustrated Egyptians place their earnest hopes on the elections also because many, clearly exhausted from an economy that continues its downward plunge, are expectantly looking for easy, quick-fix solutions.
It is estimated that 50 percent live below the staggeringly low minimum level of poverty set by the government. Many of these hopelessly impoverished Egyptians watched with great interest a May 10 televised debate between the two top-polling candidates.
One, Amr Moussa, former Mubarak foreign minister and recent leader of the Arab League, is considered a favorite of the U.S. State Department. It did not go unnoticed in the Egyptian press, for example, that U.S. Senator John Kerry met with Moussa and none of the other candidates.
The other candidate leading in the polls is Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, an expelled, former Muslim Brotherhood leader who has an honorable reputation as a fierce opponent of Mubarak’s rule and who has garnered even more support for his declared objective of bridging the Islamic/secular divide.
One notable minority candidate is renown human rights and labor rights attorney Khaled Ali who filed papers the day he turned 40 years old, the minimum age requirement. Ali is an avowed leftist who is most identified as a prominent supporter of the emerging wave of independent unions. These unions are just beginning to get properly organized under very difficult conditions but they already claim a membership of over two million.
If none of the twelve candidates wins a majority this week, a run-off will occur in late June with the military pledging to turn over power to the new president at that time. But this is simply not true, it is pure stage craft. There will be no real turnover of power.
David Kennedy, director of the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School and a keen observer of Egyptian politics also seems to doubt any real changes will take place with these elections when he recently wrote in Al Jazeera that “after a year, the clamour, the disenchantment, and the resignation – along with the hope that nothing enduring will change – have all grown. At the same time, the ‘transition’ process offers complex opportunities for existing and aspiring elites to jockey for position and struggle to improve their position for the next round.”
In reality, the question of power will be determined in the future, not now, and not by these elections. Any power shift will be determined by how successfully the youth and the growing workers’ movement become politically organized because as of yet, this majority is not represented by the main contenders in the presidential election, a situation we in the United States appreciate is not unique to Egypt.
Who Changes What?
Why is it certain the military will not leave the stage?
Because media, academic and foreign consulate estimates of the military’s control of the economy ranges from a low of 15 percent to a whopping 30 percent. And none of this “militarization of the economy” will be diminished by the presidential elections anymore than the much-ballyhooed November 2011 elections to parliament lessened the military’s power.
The army’s initial coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood and the more extreme fundamentalist Salafists was seriously challenged when the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) refused to delegate any genuine power to the Islamist-controlled parliament.
For example, parliament could dismiss cabinet ministers but SCAF exclusively made all new appointments. In addition, SCAF maintained sole control of all military affairs, including their extensive budget and ownership of major portions of the economy – both state secrets.
Under circumstances that limited parliament’s power and because the Islamist parties remained politically committed to defending SCAF against protestors, parliament failed miserably to enact any reforms. Ali Fattouh, a bus driver and independent union organizer with the Public Transport Authority, expressed popular criticisms of the do-nothing parliament published in Egypt Independent on May 1, 2012: “These parties and MPs provide us with no assistance or support during our struggles. Other than lip service, they offer us nothing.”
Thus, suffering erosion of their mass base, the Islamist parliamentary majority clamored in the last several months for more discretionary power.
But SCAF refused. In the most recent embarrassing and humiliating incident, SCAF dismissed the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafist-controlled committee charged with writing a new constitution and, instead, stated that it would write a new interim draft itself.
The proposed interim constitution under consideration reportedly extends extremely broad powers to the military that includes safeguarding national security, maintaining national unity and protecting the constitution and the revolution’s legitimacy.
This just about sums up the complete role of any government.
In addition, the interim constitution will reportedly grant SCAF exclusive powers to discuss and review the military’s internal affairs, including its budget, armaments and military law. The budget can be discussed by parliament’s defense and national security committee, according to the provisional constitution, but only in secret closed-door meetings.
SCAF and Islamist Partnership Frays
The recent disputes between SCAF and the Islamists are more akin to “inside the beltway” jockeying for position as professor Kennedy alluded, than to any real political policy argument. However, even these minor types of conflicts made more urgent the military’s search for more reliable allies among the power elite.
The Islamist organizations were selected as allies by SCAF in the immediate aftermath of the revolution when their mass base was a real asset to a faltering structure. Now, having an ally that will sometimes use their mass base to challenge SCAF, no matter how narrowly limited, has become a liability.
SCAF has urgently devoted resources to reforming the police and security forces, rejuvenating Mubarak’s old trade union federation, and now, reviving old political figures with photo-shopped resumes distancing themselves from Mubarak and attesting support for the revolution.
New parties are being promoted and funded that can more reliably ‘democratize” the status quo with some cosmetic plastic surgery that will polish the rough spots in a post-Mubarak Egypt.
Leading presidential candidate Amr Moussa is a good example. He has already made perfectly clear he will be a reliable ally of the military.
When asked by the U.S. State Department’s Voice of America how he would handle “the military economy,” Moussa reassuringly responded that the “issue should not concern people, because the ruling power will be transferred from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the elected president. Then, the armed forces…would take care of their own affairs.”
Here we see an experienced double-talking diplomat putting two contradictory sentences together as one thought.
While this arrangement may work well for the generals, not everyone is happy. Zeinab Abul-Magd, assistant professor at the American University in Cairo and Oberlin College, recently reported that “civilians working under retired army personnel show continuous discontent about mismanagement, corruption, and injustice. During the last 14 months, after SCAF took power, numerous major labor strikes and sit-ins emerged in facilities managed by retired generals. In many incidents, the managers called on military police to end the labor unrest.
“For example, widespread protests were staged at military factories, the Suez Canal ports, the Red Sea ports, petroleum companies, a cement factory, factories of chemical industries, the Alexandria port, and the Water and Sewerage Company. The SCAF has condemned labor strikes at large, arguing that they harm the country’s economy and ‘stall the wheel of production,’ but the largest of these strikes were staged in places where military managers rule. Labor strikes are primarily harming the military economic interests rather than the national economy.”
The military desperately wants to return to a backstage role where the curtain will shield their vast hold on the economy but their efforts are in vain. But in my view, the real challenge will not come from reinvented politicians, rebuilt parties or refurbished government institutions but from the newly emerging independent unions, from the still undefeated and confident workers’ movement and from the valiant youth under 30 years of age who alone comprise 60 percent of the population and around 85 percent of the unemployed.
For those of interested in following real politics, it is these forces that should receive most of our attention and inspire all of our hopes for a new Egypt.
Carl Finamore is Machinist Local Lodge 1781 delegate to the San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO. He was in Cairo only hours after Mubarak was deposed and visited again a few months ago for the one year anniversary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and his writings viewed on http://carlfinamore.wordpress.com/