Egypt's military rulers to keep most powers after election

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 7, 2011 

CAIRO — Egypt's military will retain broad executive powers, help shape the framing of a new constitution and keep its vast financial holdings hidden even after an elected Parliament is seated, one of the ruling generals told foreign journalists Wednesday.

Maj. Gen. Mukhtar el Mulla sounded at times conciliatory and other times defensive or defiant in a rare two-hour interview that offered the most in-depth look to date at the vision that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has for Egypt's democratic transition. Since they took power upon President Hosni Mubarak's ouster last February, the reclusive generals typically have announced their plans via state media or an official Facebook page.

"We don't speak of our work. We let our work speak for us," Mulla said, explaining the opacity of the council's inner workings and its financial portfolio.

The latest communique, issued Wednesday, hands executive powers to the military-appointed interim prime minister, Kamal el Ganzouri, except for command of the armed forces and the judiciary. Ganzouri, who was premier under Mubarak in the 1990s, simultaneously announced his Cabinet picks: 26 men and three women, among them several figures who also held public office in the former regime.

Mulla's insistence on keeping parliamentary powers in check, coupled with the extra authority and fanfare for a set of unelected Mubarak-era ministers, incensed politicians and activists, who've already accused the generals of blocking rather than enabling democratic reform. Most revolutionary forces have called for the military to step back and allow a broadly representative civilian transitional body to manage the country along with the elected Parliament.

The starkly different visions for how and when the council cedes authority to a fully empowered civilian body are likely to result in a showdown for popular legitimacy in the coming weeks: an elected, probably Islamist-led, Parliament vs. an unelected, military-backed government.

"It's a Cabinet that can't even choose its ministers without complying with the council's wishes," said Ziad Akl, a political analyst at the Ahram Center, a research institute in Cairo. "(The generals) are not only ignoring the demands of the public, they're undermining them."

Already, Islamist leaders from the Muslim Brotherhood — so far the top vote-getters in the ongoing parliamentary election — have warned that they could use their clout in the next legislature to seek a no-confidence vote that could collapse the caretaker government. The goal would be to install a replacement picked by the legislature, a scenario Mulla dismissed as unfeasible, explaining that current laws allow Parliament to "legislate and supervise only."

"The council still has its statesmen, and they'll never be persuaded that there's another pool to choose from," Akl said. "They intervened in the first place to save the state — not the revolution, not the people — and now they're saving the state again and will do whatever they can."

Mulla said the council didn't think that the next Parliament would be "representative" enough to have full authority over forming a government or framing a constitution, suggesting that it could be dominated by religious fundamentalists. Islamists, with candidates ranging from moderates to militants, won 60 percent of the first round of parliamentary elections last week.

The incoming Parliament's main charge is picking a 100-person constitutional assembly, but Mulla made it clear that the military would have an indirect say over the process. He said the council would appoint an advisory group — to include intellectuals, legal scholars and artists — to work with Parliament and the Cabinet on a constitution that would represent more than just the parliamentary majority.

"The next Parliament will not represent all Egyptian people, and the constitution will affect all citizens in Egypt," Mulla said. "We are in the first stage of democracy. After a period, the Parliament may have the ability to do whatever it likes to make any amendments."

Despite celebrating a mostly smooth first round of voting, politicians questioned whether the whole election was an exercise in futility given the military council's reluctance to fully trust a body chosen by ordinary Egyptians. They vowed to push for greater powers, and said they had a popular mandate as backup.

"If what Mulla says is true, then why are we forming a Parliament in the first place?" asked Hisham Abul Nasr, a senior leader of the Nour Party, whose ultraconservative Salafist Islamist candidates captured a surprising quarter of the vote in the first round of the polls.

"I'm very optimistic that the coming Parliament will have more privileges than just monitoring or legislating," Abul Nasr said. "It will be very powerful because it's the first Parliament chosen by the people in fair and transparent elections, so this will empower the members and make them understand it's a chance to prove themselves."

Mulla also touched on other hot-button issues in Egypt: He denied that the military had jailed two high-profile bloggers over their criticism of the military, though the charges in one case contradict that. He said riot policemen acted in self-defense last month when they fired tear gas and birdshot at protesters in deadly clashes outside the Interior Ministry.

And he said the council wouldn't accept any foreign loans during the transition unless the already dismal economy plunged into "very severe circumstances."

The military also wants to keep its budget and financial portfolio off-limits to parliamentary oversight.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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