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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. 

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.

class="p1">SCAF generals have made clear they will not cede any ground of their lucrative business ventures – spanning from arms manufacturing to tourist resorts – that has linked them to profitable networks of transnational capital and given them an unprecedented grip on as much as 40 percent of Egypt’s economy, observers say. 

In this environment, a civilian head-of-state will be faced with a near-impossible gamble: tussle with a politically emboldened military with unrivaled influence and break its stronghold over the country, or allow the army to solidify and prolong its rule as an enduring kingmaker of Egyptian politics. 

Moussa, Morsi and Aboul Fotouh have each said they anticipate limited oversight of the defense budget by a so-called ‘special committee’ in parliament. 

More from GlobalPost: The money behind the Egyptian military

But the people’s assembly remains enfeebled by military rule, which has always operated as a black box, not even allowing its financial accounting to fall under a national budget or to be scrutinized by any form of governance.  

“The army must go back to its normal role as defender of the nation, and it should not have this kind of economic control,” Karim Radwan, a member of the executive committee of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Cairo, told GlobalPost last month. 

Aboul Fotouh, a centrist-Islamist candidate who broke from the Brotherhood last year to run for the presidency, has been the most outspoken of the presidential front-runners, calling for an end to all military trials for civilians, and saying that as president, he will retain the right to appoint a civilian minister of defense.  

Moussa, a former minister of foreign affairs appointed by Mubarak, is now leading in the polls. But he has failed to publicly criticize army rule or the military’s business ventures.

“Whoever is elected, and who SCAF accepts [as president], will be made aware of the balance of power between the president, the army and its rulers,” said Amir Salem, a human rights lawyer and longtime activist. “The transition has not yet reached a point where the president can act as a strong, independent entity.” 

Mubarak, despite his longstanding ties to the military, forged for himself a strong, semi-independent presidency that led to a complex relationship with the armed forces during tenure. 

Because an Islamist cell within the army gunned down former President Sadat, Mubarak sought to curtail the military’s power by crafting his own extensive police state. 

He strengthened the police and domestic intelligence services as paramilitary forces loyal to him, numbering more than 400,000, according to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a leading British think tank on security and military conflict. The military maintains a similarly sized force, with more than 350,000 active personnel, IISS says.

But now, lacking the support of Mubarak’s domestic security apparatus, any successful presidential candidate would find it difficult to move politically against the military. 

“They [the army] will want to have continued influence over the state as a whole,” said Robert Springborg, professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in California, and expert on the Egyptian military.

“Parliament remains weak, the court system has been further weakened,” he said. “There aren’t too many allies in the state itself that the president would be able to draw on against the military.”

Egypt’s civilian institutions may not yet have the tools or the influence to curb military dominance, but others are optimistic, calling the election of a civilian president a step in the right direction.

“It will take time to implement a system of checks and balances,” said the retired Brigadier-General Al Zayyat. 

Under Mubarak, the regime allowed for the limited operation of certain NGOs and think tanks, some of which were either run by or linked with the government. 

It became acceptable for retired military officers to join regime-approved tanks as security analysts or army experts, and to be quoted by the media. Because of this legacy, Al Zayyat, while not affiliated with any institute, is able to comment freely as a retired military officer. 

“The army must accustom itself to subordinating itself to a civilian authority,” he said. “It is no longer sacrosanct.”

Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt.