With the Military Holding the Reins, Egypt is Still Far From a Democracy
Cairo. Preliminary election results show that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi is likely to become Egypt’s next president. But even if Morsi is declared the official winner later this week, Egypt’s first popular presidential election will not have been a democratic milestone.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling dissolving Parliament and the military’s declaration curtailing the presidency’s authority, Morsi will be a toothless figurehead under the thumb of an authoritarian military council that doesn’t seem likely to relinquish power anytime soon.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has tightened its grasp on power, giving itself control of legislation and the national budget, the right to appoint a panel to draft a new constitution, immunity from democratic oversight, and the power to veto a declaration of war. The new president is also expected to have no say in foreign policy and on relations with the United States, which gives Egypt $1.3 billion in annual military aid.
The military’s unwillingness to cede power and allow a genuinely democratic government has been clear for months. Yet the United States has continued to support the council — indeed, American-made tear gas canisters are still being used by the Egyptian authorities to suppress anti-military protesters.
When I voted “no” in the referendum on constitutional amendments last March, just weeks after the longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted, it was a vote against the entire military-led transition process that set off the continuing legal mess that culminated in the recent dissolution of the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and in the military’s seizure of sweeping legislative powers.
The amendments and the referendum marked the beginning of a process that led Egyptians and the world to falsely believe that Egypt was being democratized. On March 19, 2011, many Egyptians proudly showed off their inked fingers to symbolize participating in a referendum that they thought laid down a “road map of transition to civil, democratic rule,” as members of the council like to call it.
But that twisted road map was always intended to suppress the Egyptian people’s aspirations by delaying a democratic transition and dragging Egyptians along a path determined by the military. The referendum and the parliamentary and presidential elections have kept the people distracted by the trappings of democracy.
Meanwhile, Mubarak’s regime never ceded power. The former president lost his title and was brought to trial, and some of his iconic aides have been prosecuted (by a Mubarak appointee), although they have not yet been given final sentences.
Other than that, everything remains almost the same as it was before the revolution. The army’s commanders and the government’s key ministers have not changed; the Interior Ministry violates human rights as brazenly as ever; thousands of ordinary Egyptians have been subjected to military trials; and injustices are being perpetrated on Egyptian citizens under a new decree giving the military police and intelligence officials the right to detain civilians.
A functioning democracy could not possibly have emerged from a process that entailed electing a Parliament and a president before establishing a constitution that outlined their respective powers and their relationship with the army.
Democracy can survive only where there is rule of law; it cannot take root in a country plagued by legal and political chaos. Egyptian courts have been consumed by disputes over the legality of the Parliament itself, over the constitution-drafting assembly formed by the now-dissolved Parliament, and about how and where the new president will take the oath of office in the absence of a national legislature.
The uncertainty goes on and on, leaving legal experts and opinion leaders in a constant debate that distracts Egyptians from the ideals for which they waged their revolution.
Given the military’s consistent disregard for basic democratic norms over the past 16 months, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s comment last week that “There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people” sounded ridiculous.
Despite the army’s blatant power grabs, the Obama administration has had no qualms about restoring American military aid, waiving a Congressional requirement that links military assistance to the protection of basic freedoms, so as to preserve the United States’ longtime alliance with Egypt’s rulers.
America could have sided with the Egyptian people if it had wanted to. But the question is whether the American government really has the will to see Egypt become a democracy.
If the Obama administration genuinely supports the Egyptian people in their pursuit of freedom, then it should realize that democracy will take root only through the revolutionary path that started on the streets in January 2011 — not through the dubious ways of the Mubarak-appointed military council.
Sara Khorshid, an Egyptian journalist, is a former editor of Islam Online.
The New York Times