Egyptian activists worry Islamist-led parliament will go easy on military

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 4, 2012 

CAIRO — Egyptians completed voting Wednesday in the final round of parliamentary elections, with little suspense over the results: When final tallies are announced Jan. 13, Islamists are assured a majority through the steamroller parties of the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Salafists.

Less certain, however, is how far the Islamists will go in confronting the ruling military council, whose 10 months in power have been marked by acts of repression that in many cases have exceeded those that took place during the 30 years that Hosni Mubarak ran the country before resigning last February.

At each skirmish between the generals and protesters, influential Islamists have been slow to criticize the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, leaving activists worried that the first elected body of post-Mubarak Egypt won't work hard enough to uproot the old order and lead a real democratic overhaul.

In return for their relative passivity in the face of military abuses, the Islamists have been exempt from the harsh measures that have been visited on other political groups, the activists charge.

"It is an apparent agreement between the military council and the religious powers," said Karim Abadir, a spokesman for the secular coalition known as the Egyptian Bloc. "The Mubarak policies are still in use and active. They're threatening us with the Islamists and favoring them over any other pro-democracy power."

Last week's military-assisted raids on offices of American and Egyptian nonprofit groups, including the U.S. government-funded National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, were a case in point, activists say.

The government said the raids were aimed at groups that receive foreign funding through unlawful channels. But the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist offices were exempt from the scrutiny, despite widespread claims that both Islamist movements receive millions of dollars funneled from the Persian Gulf powerhouses of Saudi Arabia and Qatar, mainly via Egyptian charities.

"We should take this chance to shine light on such religious institutions and know what funds they receive, from where and why they haven't been subject to the same treatment as other NGOs," said Mohamed Kadri Saeed, a military analyst and former army officer who thinks that a wider net should have been cast.

The Muslim Brotherhood waited at least two days after the raids before joining the chorus of denunciation that extended from Cairo to Washington. The Salafists' Nour Party also kept mostly silent on the episode.

Such tepid responses are now the norm, activists complain, because the groups are locked into a mutually beneficial agreement with the generals for speedy elections that ensure an Islamist victory without immediately ending military rule, as most other political factions have called for.

Mohamed Beltagi, the leader of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said that neither the Brotherhood nor its spinoff party received foreign funding. He challenged anyone with evidence to the contrary to take the findings to the attorney general's office.

Beltagi was reluctant to criticize the raids on nonprofit groups, saying he didn't have enough detail; he said that any action taken "without legal grounds would be totally unacceptable."

But he denied that the new parliament would take a soft line on the military. As the country's only elected governing body, the parliament will have the popular legitimacy and a mandate to supervise all Egyptian institutions, he said, including the notoriously reclusive military, whose financial holdings are hidden from the public.

"After the parliament convenes, it will be, officially, the highest legislative institution under which the whole country falls and operates," Beltagi said. "We will be capable of monitoring the military organization just like any other institution in the country."

Any Brotherhood promise of subjugating the military to civilian oversight rings hollow, however, to many non-Islamist activists and politicians who've watched with growing unease in recent months as Islamist leaders discouraged followers from street protests, issued delayed or muted responses to documented police brutality and pushed for elections to continue on schedule even with the political class in turmoil and voters still unsure how to navigate the complicated electoral system.

Analysts and activists say the religious blocs were allowed to campaign using religious slogans_ in violation of election law — in addition to being exempted from the raids on non-Islamist civil society groups.

"It's very apparent that the Islamists are being treated exceptionally," said Ahmed Maher, a founder of the April 6 Youth Movement and an important architect of the revolt that toppled Mubarak.

Maher said the generals knew they must strike a deal with Islamists in order to avoid an all-out confrontation between the armed forces and the new parliament over the scope of military powers and whether to keep their books hidden from civilian oversight.

But if the Brotherhood chooses the military over fellow revolutionaries, he warned, the group will lose any remaining support from rival movements and will face a backlash. Analysts say that a long-term deal between the Islamists and the military is untenable, and inevitably would unravel because of vastly different visions for post-Mubarak Egypt. The Brotherhood, Maher and other said, would be wiser to return to its revolutionary alliances.

"We can see signs of that deal between the Islamists and the SCAF, but if it's proven, it will put the Islamists in a very problematic situation," Maher said, referring to the military council by its initials. "The opposition will turn against them as well."

(Sabry is a special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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