Egypt generals bring dictatorship by backdoor

Egypt generals bring  dictatorship by backdoor

After getting Parliament dissolved, the generals have also seized control of drafting a constitution.

Egyptian news organisations declared Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood the winner of the country’s first competitive presidential race, just hours after the ruling military council issued an interim constitution granting itself broad power over the future government, all but eliminating the president’s authority in an apparent effort to guard against just such a victory.

The military’s new charter was the latest in a series of swift steps that the generals have taken to tighten their grasp on power just at the moment when they had promised to hand over to elected civilians the authority that they assumed on the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year. Their charter grants them the power to control the prime minister, lawmaking, the national budget and declarations of war, without any supervision or oversight.

After dissolving the Brotherhood-led Parliament elected four months ago, and locking out its lawmakers, the generals also seized control of the process of writing a permanent constitution. The state news media reported that the generals had picked a 100-member panel to draft it.

“The new constitutional declaration completed Egypt’s official transformation into a military dictatorship,” Hos-sam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, wrote in an online commentary. Under the military’s charter, the president appeared to be reduced to a powerless figurehead.

Though final results were not available, Brotherhood supporters called the apparent victory by the Islamist candidate, Morsi, a rebuke to the military’s power grab. “Down, down with military rule!” a crowd at Morsi’s campaign headquarters chanted.

Morsi thanked God, who, he said, “guided Egypt to this straight path, the path of freedom and democracy.” He pledged to represent all Egyptians, including those who had voted against him. Other Brotherhood leaders had already begun escalating their defiance of the generals in meetings and statements.

After meeting with Gen Sami Hafez Enan of the military council, the Brotherhood-affiliated speaker of the Parliament, Saad el-Katatni, declared that the military had no authority to dissolve the Parliament or write a constitution. He said a separate 100-member panel picked by the Parliament would begin meeting within hours to write up its own constitution, raising the prospect of competing assemblies.

And Saad el-Hussainy, the leader of the Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc, said the group’s lawmakers would show up at the Parliament. The generals had stationed military and riot police officers to keep the lawmakers out, potentially setting the stage for new clashes in the streets. The military’s moves were “a new episode of a complete military coup against the revolution and the popular will,” Mohamed el-Beltagy, a leading Brotherhood lawmaker, said in a statement online.

The generals have not spoken publicly or explained their actions, which have been announced without fanfare in the official news media. A rushed decision issued by a Mubarak-appointed court had initially provided at least a legal veneer for the dissolution of the Parliament, but the swift consolidation of power has quickly acquired the feel of a counterrevolution in the making.

Critical battle

The military’s charter “really does complete the coup in many obvious ways,” Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert at George Washington University in Washington said in an e-mail message. “It brings back martial law and protects the military from any public, presidential or parliamentary scrutiny. And it perpetuates the generals’ dominance of the political system.”

The presidential runoff had already become a critical battle in a long war between the generals and the Brotherhood, which for six decades constituted the primary opposition. Morsi, a US-trained engineer who once led the Brotherhood’s small bloc in the Mubarak-dominated Parliament, was up against Ahmed Shafik, a former air force general and Mubarak’s last prime minister.

The military’s shutdown of the Parliament has turned the race into something close to a life or death struggle for the Brotherhood. It demoralised Egypt’s Islamists and democrats alike, and at the same time energised Shafik’s supporters. And the sudden possibility that the revolt that defined the Arab Spring could end in a restoration of military-backed autocracy has again captivated the region.

The Brotherhood predicted a victory for its candidate as soon as the polls closed. “Morsi is way ahead,” Murad Mohamed All, a Brotherhood spokesman, said by telephone. Ahmed Sarhan, a spokesman for Shafik, insisted that his candidate was winning. ‘Mission accomplished,’ he wrote in a message online. A few moments later, Sarhan issued a written statement accusing the Brotherhood of a host of campaign law violations, including tearing down Shafik posters, bribing and intimidating voters, and ‘ballot rigging and stuffing.’

The Shafik campaign did not present evidence for the allegations, but its statement added, "The Muslim Brotherhood’s systematic election violations prove how the M.B. does not believe in freedom of choice and democracy unless this democracy brings them to power.” A military helicopter buzzed low over Cairo as voters went to the polls, recalling the fighter-jet flyovers of Tahrir Square in the days when the generals first took power, at the end of the uprising against  Mubarak last year.

An activist organisation that played a leading role in that revolt, the April 6 Youth Movement, said in a statement that the police had arrested 30 of its members the previous day, apparently for standing near polling stations and holding up, pictures of those killed during the uprising last year. The group said at least five of its members remained in custody.

Meanwhile, the Mubarak-appointed judges charged with overseeing the vote held news conferences leveling accusations at the Muslim Brotherhood that seemed intended to scare away voters. First, the judges suggested thay the Brotherhood had infiltrated an official printing facility to produce premarked ballots favouring their candidate. But the state news media later reported that none appeared to have been used.

Then the judges also suggested that the police had found evidence that the Brotherhood was planning violence. Hatem Bagato, the general secretary of the election commission, said three operatives had been arrested outside a polling station with a laptop computer containing photographs of ‘military training in other countries.’ In a statement, the Brotherhood denied any connection to the laptop’s owners or any plans for violence and threatened to sue the commission for violating electoral rules by campaigning against Morsi.

Shafik has said he could collaborate well with the generals. If Morsi wins, it will begin a new struggle within the government. The Brotherhood would have the legitimacy of its candidate’s election as president and the leadership of the Parliament, but generals all the guns.

In an interview, Mokhtar el-Ashry, head of the legal committee of the Brotherhood’s political party, said the group had been counting on winning the presidency to help restore the Parliament, relying on traditions and precedents in Egyptian law that empower the president to settle disputes between the branches of government. “It is a coup, but a soft coup that uses the law,” he said. But he acknowledged that it might also take pressure from the streets. “They are not playing legally,” he said.

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