Egyptian Military Under Mubarak’s Shadow

CAIRO – Egypt’s armed forces, the de facto rulers of the country since last week’s ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, have already met several longstanding demands of the opposition, including the suspension of the constitution and dissolution of parliament. Some critics, however, say more must be done if the Mubarak regime’s authoritarian structure is to be satisfactorily replaced with a democratic one.

"The army has answered several of the demands made by the revolution," Magdi Hussein, opposition journalist and head of the Islamic Labor Party (which had been suspended under Mubarak), told IPS. "But a number of other demands still need to be addressed, not least of which is the release of those citizens arrested or disappeared over the course of the recent uprising." 

On Feb. 11, Mubarak handed over executive power to the Supreme Council of Egypt’s Armed Forces, which has vowed in turn to surrender authority to an elected civilian government within six months. The handover followed 18 days of popular demonstrations countrywide – unprecedented in both scope and intensity – in which more than 350 people were killed and thousands injured. 

In a series of official communiqués released over the past week, the military council has endorsed protesters’ "legitimate demands," stressing that those demands would be carried out "according to a specified timetable." The council has also vowed to guarantee the "peaceful transition of power" to an elected civilian authority, with a view towards building "a democratic and free state." 

Notably, in a communiqué issued on Feb. 12, the council also stated that Egypt remained "committed to all regional and international obligations and treaties," in reference to, among other things, Egypt’s 32-year-old peace agreement with Israel. 

On Sunday, Feb. 13, the council formally suspended the Egyptian Constitution and dissolved both houses of Egypt’s bicameral parliament. It also declared its intention to run the nation’s affairs for the next six months or until free parliamentary and presidential elections could be held. 

On Monday, Feb. 14, the council appointed an eight-member "panel of experts" mandated with amending certain articles of the national charter dealing with the electoral process and presidential term limits. The constitutional amendments, the council stated, would be hammered out over the next ten days before being put before a national referendum within two months’ time. 

The moves have been cautiously welcomed by many opposition critics. 

"The dissolution of parliament, which had been stacked with cronies of the ruling regime, along with the promise to hand over power to an elected civilian government within a specified timetable, did a good deal to reassure the people of the military’s good intentions," said Hussein. 

Several other opposition demands, however, remain unfulfilled. To the disappointment of many critics, the military council also decreed that Egypt’s sitting government, led by Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, would "continue as a caretaker administration until a new government is formed." 

"The Shafiq government consists both of new ministers and longstanding ones, all of whom were appointed by Mubarak," said Hussein. Echoing a common opinion among opposition leaders, he added, "How is it that Mubarak was removed, yet his government remains? The incumbent ministers are all proven failures." 

Other major opposition demands also remain unmet, including the release of political prisoners and the termination of Egypt’s longstanding Emergency Law, which grants the state sweeping powers of arrest. 

"Many of those arrested – or disappeared – during the uprising have not been released, not to mention those political prisoners who have been languishing in prison for years," said Hussein. "Meanwhile, the Emergency Law, which outlaws unsanctioned gatherings of five individuals or more, remains in force." 

On Sunday, two armed forces council members met with eight protest leaders chosen to speak on behalf of the uprising. In an online statement issued after the meeting, two of the latter – Amr Salaama and Wail Ghoneim – reassured the public that the armed forces council was committed to instituting "a democratically-elected civilian ruling system in Egypt." 

"The council informed us that it had kept the Shafiq government in place in order to protect the public interest – but it also informed us that it would work quickly to replace it," the statement noted. "The council also reiterated its commitment to prosecute all corrupt regime figures, both current and former." 

"The armed forces council further said that it planned to draw up a list of those arrested or disappeared (during the recent uprising) and vowed to begin looking for them," the statement added. 

Hussein (who himself recently finished a two-year prison sentence for illegally crossing into the Gaza Strip during Israel’s 2008/2009 war on the territory), expressed optimism. 

"I believe there is now sufficient awareness on the part of the public to allow us to follow up on the revolution’s achievements," he said. Nevertheless, he warned, the coming transitional period "will be a dangerous time." 

Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces currently consists of 17 members, including longstanding Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. In the president’s absence, the defense minister is considered commander-in-chief of the armed forces. 

The Egyptian military has stepped in twice before in recent history to re- establish domestic order: once to quell bread riots in 1977, and again to put down a mutiny by central security officers in 1986.

(Inter Press Service)

Read more by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Author: Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani write for Inter Press Service.