Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi is the head of Egypt's ruling… (Amr Nabil / Pool Photo )
Reporting from Cairo — Egypt's ruling military council is silencing critics while polishing its image amid increasing signs that it is plotting to stay in power behind the scenes even after a new parliament is in place early next year.
Activists and politicians are worried that the military, the country's most revered institution before the revolution that overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in February, refuses to have its authority and financial interests answerable to an emerging democracy.
Concerns were heightened this week when the military-backed interim government announced parameters for writing Egypt's new constitution. The proposals allow the generals to appoint 80% of the constitutional committee. They also state that the defense budget would be kept secret and the military would be the "guardian" of the constitution, raising the possibility of intervention in legislative and presidential affairs.
"The implications of this are really frightening," said Amr Darrag, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing. "A full control by the military of the political arena would be catastrophic."
The military's power highlights how removed Egyptians are from the freedoms and civil liberties they sought in overthrowing Mubarak's 30-year-old police state. The country's martial law and political disarray are stark contrasts to recent elections in Tunisia, which is much closer to achieving the democratic ideals of the "Arab Spring."
Egypt's military tribunals; arrests of dissident voices, most recently including popular blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah; and a crackdown by soldiers that killed 24 Coptic Christian demonstrators last month have led to anger and deepening suspicions among activists. But millions of Egyptians, poor and worried about the future, support the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as the only force that can guarantee order and fix a sinking economy, plummeting tourism and rising crime.
State television and newspapers are portraying Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in a flattering light that echoes portrayals of Mubarak during his rule, including coverage of the Egypt Above All movement that has pasted posters of the field marshal across Cairo. Abdel-Rahman Hussein, writing in the independent Al Masry al Youm, put it this way:
Tantawi appeared last month "in a video clip that showed him walking in downtown Cairo in a civilian suit, not his usual military uniform. At that point mutterings were heard about a potential presidential bid. Indeed, after criticism it has never before had to deal with, the military is keen to display a more media-friendly image."
The field marshal has said that he and the military have no interest in holding power after parliamentary elections, which begin Nov. 28 and run until mid-January. But presidential elections are not expected until 2013, which activists and human rights groups complain gives the military too long a time to run the country.
The generals have shown no qualms in reversing decrees to tighten their grip. The military council ruled in March that a committee of 100 members from the new parliament would be elected to write the constitution. Its recent proposal stipulates that only 20 members of parliament will be elected to the committee; the other 80 will be appointed by the military and the interim prime minister's Cabinet.
"The political players in Egypt, particularly the Islamists, want to win a majority in parliament to force the ruling military council away from political life," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "The military is in turn working on constitutional proposals to maintain their political and financial might and to rule the country from behind a curtain."
Since Egypt's independence from British colonial rule in 1952, its three presidents — Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak — have come from senior military ranks. The role of the army was closely entwined with Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party but, critics say, at least the party offered a facade of democracy. The military's current demeanor brushes aside pretensions of a civil state.
"The military isn't a state above the state and never will be," Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and possible presidential contender, tweeted this week. "There is a difference between a civil democratic state that includes basic rights for people and a military guardianship."
There has been talk in political circles that Egypt's new government might model itself on Turkey's blend of Islamic principles and Western-style democracy. Like Egypt, the Turkish state was founded by military leaders. But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has curtailed the role of the military in recent years — a prospect Egypt's generals don't appear to relish.
"They might want to follow the Turkish model," said Darrag, who is running for parliament with the Freedom and Justice Party, "but it's the Turkish model from 40 years ago, not today's."
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau.