Questions about Egypt’s transition to democracy continued to arise last week, as a constituent assembly gave its approval to a new constitution that grants the country’s change-averse military wide-ranging powers, including the authority to appoint its own boss for close to a decade. The approval of the draft charter comes on the heels of the passage of a new law late last month imposing draconian restrictions on public gatherings and raises new concerns that the Arab worlds’ most populous nation is sliding back towards the authoritarianism that defined ousted President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade long tenure.
The draft constitution, approved by a 50 member constituent on December 1, 2013, contains a provision allowing civilians to continue to be tried in military courts. During the period of military-rule after Mubarak was toppled in early 2011, military trials for civilians became ubiquitous and thousands of Egyptians were tried before military courts. The constitution, approved in late 2012 by an Islamist-dominated assembly, which the current draft charter would replace, formally incorporated military trials for civilians into Egyptian constitutional law.
Article 174 of the draft charter sanctions military trials for civilians, although it uses more specific language than the 2012 constitution to stipulate when civilians can be tried in military courts, authorizing such trials only in cases of “direct assaults on the Armed Forces.” Critics contend that language is still broad enough to give the generals too much power to corral civilian critics of the often opaque armed forces.
Under the new charter, which still must be approved in a referendum slated for next month, the Armed Forces will also maintain its authority to shield its budget from public scrutiny.
Although the Mubarak-era constitution did not specifically mention the military budget, during the former presidents rule the budget of the armed forces was drafted secretly and then presented to Parliament as a single item, rather than a list detailing all of the military’s expenditures.
This practice was enshrined in the 2012 charter, pushed through by then-President Mohammad Morsi and his allies Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood, and once again codified in the new constitution, which, like the 2012 charter, hands the military-dominated National Defense Council control of the Armed Forces budget.
Egypt’s armed forces, which ousted Morsi, the country’s first democratically president, in a July 3 coup spearheaded by military chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, will also be afforded a privilege employees around the world desire- the power to appoint their own boss.
Under the new constitution, which was drafted and approved by a constituent assembly whose composition the ruling generals helped to shape, the military’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has veto power over the president’s choice for defense minister for the first two presidential terms after the draft charter is adopted.
The document, which appears to have the military’s finger prints all over it, also stipulates that defense ministers must be members of the Armed Forces. In affect, the new constitution grants the military the authority to appoint its own boss from among its own members, further enhancing the already robust autonomy of the country’s most powerful institution.
The assembly’s approval of the new constitution comes as the headwinds blowing against Egypt’s transition from an autocracy to a democracy appear to be growing stronger. Less than a week before the constituent assembly’s approval of the draft charter, the country’s military-backed government promulgated a law giving the Interior Ministry, an institution known for its aversion to civil liberties, the authority to ban, postpone or move demonstrations that it unilaterally determines constitute, “a threat to peace and security.”
Meanwhile, a campaign sprang up earlier this year calling on General Sissi, the country’s defacto military ruler, to run for president in the presidential election slated for next year. By mid-October, the organizers of the pro-Sissi campaign claimed that they had gathered more than nine million signatures, the equivalent to over ten percent of the population, on a petition calling on the general to run for president.
Although analysts claim these numbers are most likely heavily inflated, there does appear to be a groundswell of support for Sissi’s possible candidacy among Egyptians who yearn for stability following nearly three years of almost non-stop protests, strikes, coups, fuel shortages and other crisis’s. If General Sissi’s candidacy does in fact come to fruition, it seems unlikely that the military, which has dominated politics since Morsi’s ouster, would allow another candidate to win.
Egypt’s path to democracy is likely to grow bumpier over the next six months as Egyptians vote for a new constitution that contains a number of military-friendly provisions and for a president from among a field of candidates that could include a man in uniform.
– Eric Erdahl
Sources: Al-Ahram, Al-Monitor
Photo: Contemporary Condition