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As Egypt's presidential election presents extraordinary challenges, GlobalPost offers this continuing series to shed light on how the country will move forward under its first-ever civilian head of state and how the soon-to-be-drafted constitution will protect civil rights in a new Egypt. 

Military rule graffiti Egypt
An Egyptian man walks past graffiti depicting members of the military council and reading 'Down with the military rule, no to military trials for civilians' near the defense ministry in the Abbassiya district of Cairo on April 29, 2012. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt's new president to face huge decision on military's role

With elections this week, the deeply entrenched Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will not easily be knocked from its perch.

CAIRO, Egypt – Egyptians are headed to the polls in a historic election to choose their first-ever civilian president. But with a constitution yet to be written and a parliament still struggling to breathe under the grip of military rule, just how much power will Egypt’s new leader have? 

The president-elect, whether Islamist, secular, or of the old regime, will be forced to navigate often-competing constituencies, including Islamists trumpeting the role of sharia law, the wary Coptic Christian minority and Egypt’s stalwart labor movements. 

But of all Egypt’s constituencies of power, none is greater than the Egyptian military, the institution from which every modern Egyptian leader has emerged and the venerable power base which has presided over the ongoing transition between the revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak and the election set to get underway on Wednesday. 

How the newly elected president approaches a relationship to the military and to what extent he seeks to challenge its sprawling and secretive financial empire will in many ways give shape to Egypt’s nascent democratic state for years to come. 

Few of the front-running candidates for Egypt’s top post – including the secular, old-guard Amr Moussa, independent Islamist Abdel Meneim Aboul Fotouh and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi – are so far willing to publicly challenge the clout of armed forces, still highly revered by many Egyptians. 

“[The army] will want to have continued influence over the state as a whole.”
~Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California

On Thursday, less than a week before the election, local media reported that the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) would issue an amendment to the constitutional declaration voted in last year that will define the powers and duties of the incoming head-of-state.  

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Former Brigadier-General and independent military analyst Safwat Al Zayyat said, “There is no real history of a relationship between the military on the one hand and the executive on the other, because they were always both derived from the same entity.”

In 1952, a group of ‘Free Officers’ in Egypt’s military, led by later Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, staged a coup against the country’s monarch, King Farouk, launching 60 years of continuous military rule. 

That era ended in February of last year when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in protests that ultimately led to Mubarak, an Egyptian Air Force commander brought to power after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, stepping down after 30 years of rule.  

“The military institution has largely determined the actions of the executive branch, and in return, the regime gave the army a lot of leeway,” Al Zayyat said. “Allowing them to pursue economic projects and leaving certain civilian positions open for military figures.”

Indeed, Egyptians had hoped their 2011 popular uprising would usher in a new era of civil, democratic rule. 

Protesters in Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, the symbolic epicenter of the revolt, initially welcomed with enthusiasm the military as it rolled into the capital’s streets in battle tanks. Its field commanders and soldiers on the street vowed not to fire on the unarmed demonstrators. 

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Chanting, “The people and the army are one hand,” the activists were hopeful the military was on their side in the fight against the regime. 

But soon after SCAF assumed control during the revolution, protesters’ hopes for a fresh regime – free of the corruption and widespread torture of the Mubarak period and finally answerable to the Egyptian electorate – were dashed. 

Since it seized the helm as Egypt’s caretaker government, the military has cracked down on protesters, killing scores of civilians in the last year. It has co-opted state institutions, including the powerful state-run media and, some analysts suspect, the judiciary, to solidify its rule and ensure its privileges and exceptional status are enshrined in any new state.  

It has also significantly bolstered the number of civilians it tries in military courts – over 12,000 according to No Military Trials, a watchdog and advocacy group here – a judicial venue that eschews basic due process rights and offers no right to appeal, Human Rights Watch says.