The Egyptian Military Digs In

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Will the country slide back into authoritarianism?

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Protesters chant slogans against the government and military rulers at Tahrir Square after Friday prayers in Cairo / Reuters).

During the tense early days of Egypt's revolution, crowds massing in Tahrir Square cheered the Egyptian military as a force of moderation. Protesters held babies up to be photographed with tank operators. People shared their tea with soldiers. That honeymoon ended pretty quickly as Egyptians of all stripes became increasingly uneasy about when and whether the military would actually hand over power. Egypt is scheduled to begin parliamentary elections at the end of November, but the transition to a civilian government still seems distant.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) continues to act in a pretty authoritarian manner. It has been accused of censoring both traditional media outlets like newspapers and print magazines as well as Al Jazeera's Mubasheer Misr channel and a popular TV show with host Yousri Foda; it stirred up controversy recently by proposing a set of "supra-constitutional principles," stipulating that the military budget would be secret, and allowing for the military to veto articles of the new constitution and to appoint a new constitution committee if the elected committee fails to draft a constitution in six months. It also continues to try civilians in military tribunals. Over 12,000 Egyptians have been tried this way, with 93 percent convicted. Among them is blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is accused of inciting violence in the October 9 massacre at Maspero where 27 people were killed in a clash between the military and Christian protesters. SCAF has kept in place the much-loathed Emergency Law, a hold-over from Mubarak that allows the state to arrest and detain civilians with impunity.

For now, it seems that SCAF intends to hold on firmly to the reins of power. They continue to delay presidential elections, and still no date is fixed. At this point, it looks like a new president might not take office until April 2013, after lower and upper houses of parliament are elected, a constitution drafting body installed, and a constitution approved in a popular referendum. There is also a brewing campaign to enlist SCAF's leader, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, for president, though SCAF and Tantawi state that no member of the Council will run for president. Posters announcing a "popular demand that Tantawi run for president" have appeared in Egypt's major cities, the work of the "Stability First Coalition," which states on its Facebook page that "it is time to confess that Tantawi is the only fit candidate for president, the only one who can steer us to stability." Tantawi is being positioned as the only one to save Egypt from chaos, or an Islamist takeover that results in theocracy. But as Marina Ottaway argues, the "choice in Egypt is not one between a military dictatorship and a Taliban-type government, as some so-called liberals claim. It is between another Mubarak-type regime and the principles that people fought for in the Egyptian streets."

Transitioning from an entrenched military regime to civilian control is never easy, in any country. In Chile, Augosto Pinochet transferred power to a civilian government in 1990, but vestiges of military control lived on long after that. Pinochet bequeathed a law to the civilian government that 10 percent of all export revenue from Chile's National Copper Corporation (CODELCO) be directed to the military. That law survived until this year. It is likely that SCAF will relinquish power only incrementally, and over time in Egypt.


This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.

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Isobel Coleman is the Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at Council on Foreign Relations. She writes at "Democracy in Development."

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