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The Task at Hand for Egypt's Constitutional Committee

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Egyptby Khalid Amayreh

Summary

Egypt’s newly created constitutional amendment committee met for the first time Feb. 15 to receive instructions from Field Marshall Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The committee is tasked with amending or abolishing six constitutional articles seen by protesters as representative of the oppression of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. This committee is part of the SCAF’s efforts to create the perception that it is leading Egypt in a transition toward democratic rule, but it is also designed to prevent any credible opposition party from having enough time to organize itself in preparation for future elections. The military’s core strategic objective remains the same: to maintain the grip on power it has held since 1952. To do this, it must balance between perception and reality.

Analysis

Field Marshall Gen. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), on Feb. 15 attended the first-ever meeting of the newly created constitutional amendment committee. Though it is unclear exactly when the committee’s work will start, Tantawi has given it “no more than 10 days” to complete its work once it begins, while the SCAF’s publicly stated plan is to hold a popular referendum on the amended document within two months of the committee submitting its proposals. The SCAF also stated Feb. 15 that it “hopes” to complete the transition to a democratically elected government by Aug. 15.

These are all moves designed to create the appearance that the military does not covet the role of directly governing Egypt for any longer than it feels it must, and that it is rapidly pushing the country forward toward democratic rule. It is also part of a strategy of keeping the opposition weak and divided, for despite what its public posturing may suggest, the SCAF operates according to a strategic objective of maintaining the military’s grip on ultimate power, and must therefore try to balance between managing perceptions and reality.

The constitutional amendment committee is composed of eight civilians with judiciary and law backgrounds, including, notably, one member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). It will be led by Tariq al-Bishri, a former judge seen as a bridge between the secular and Islamist currents in Egyptian society. The MB member is Sobhi Salih, a lawyer affiliated with Egypt’s Court of Cassation. Salih’s inclusion is a sign that the military does not currently intend to outright shun Islamist integration into the new Egyptian political system. Of the remaining six members, two are professors of constitutional law at Cairo University (Atif al-Banna and Hassanayn Abd-al-Al), one at Alexandria University (Muhammad Bahi Yunus), and three are on staff at Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (Mahi Sami, Hassan al-Badrawi and Hatim Bagato).

During the meeting, Tantawi instructed the committee to focus on amending or abolishing six constitutional articles: 76, 77, 88, 93, 179 and 189, all of which were mentioned by the opposition throughout the recent protests as representing the oppression of former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Mubarak even promised to amend these articles Feb. 10 in his final address to the nation as president before being forced to step down the next day.

Constitutional reform and plans for subsequent legislative and presidential elections are integral parts of the SCAF’s attempts to portray itself as a responsible caretaker of power in the transition to democracy. Many of the articles Tantawi named must be changed for free and fair elections to actually be held, as they were written as a means of allowing the now-ousted National Democratic Party the ability to restrict who can run for the presidency, how long a president can remain in office, the level of judicial oversight of elections, who determines whether a candidate can run for parliament, and so on. Article 179, which gives the president the legal authority to condemn an alleged terrorist to military court by simple decree and which Tantawi recommended be abolished, is not related to elections but is still a way for the SCAF to display the military’s good intentions to the public.

The SCAF is not solely concerned about maintaining a good image in the public eye. There is also a very practical reason for amending the constitution and setting a six-month deadline for elections, even though no opposition leaders are demanding that a vote be held so soon. The Egyptian opposition is still in the early stages of trying to develop cohesive parties and strong candidates who might run for office. The MB is the most popular opposition group, but it currently does not even have an actual political party and has said it does not plan to submit an application to create one until the constitution has been amended. The youth protest movement has recently announced the creation of a party called the January 25 Party, but this, too, has yet to gain legal clearance, and it is unclear who it represents or who would even run on its ticket. The legal opposition parties are weak and would be unlikely to have much of a chance at winning in elections. In short, the SCAF knows that the shorter the timeframe, the harder it would be for any one opposition force to get organized, which would serve the military’s interests.

Throughout all the negotiations in which the SCAF is now engaged, whether with youth protest leaders, legal opposition parties or the MB, the military rulers have a core strategic objective in mind: preserving the military-backed regime that has existed in Egypt since 1952. The SCAF does not want to directly govern the country, but it also does not simply want to entirely give up its power and allow the people to vote in a new government that brings to power a party with overwhelming popular support. The military does, however, have an interest in bringing about the return of law and order, and, of equal importance, the restoration of the Egyptian economy. Maintaining the appearance of a willingness to work with the opposition is key to seeing this immediate objective through while pushing the transition to elections through as quickly as possible serves the military’s interests by making it more difficult for any one opposition group to solidify as a threat to the regime.


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