- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In the eight months since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's ruling military has postponed presidential elections, extended a controversial emergency law, cracked down on peaceful demonstrators and arrested critics.

Pro-democracy activists and Middle East analysts worry that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is reversing a revolution that toppled the autocratic Mubarak regime after 30 years in power.

“We, the revolution, are not governing Egypt now,” said Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement, a Facebook group, and a prominent participant in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations

“The SCAF is governing Egypt. I think they want to keep the power, and they want to make a new regime … depending on the same behavior of the Mubarak regime,” Mr. Maher told the Arab American Institute on a visit to Washington last week.

The ruling council has accused Mr. Maher’s group of being foreign agents.

“The SCAF has made a number of very troubling moves that suggest it is not serious about giving up power,” Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s center in Doha, Qatar, said in a phone interview with The Times.

“It has become so clear as to be entirely self-evident that the SCAF is an autocratic force and, in my view, the foremost danger to Egyptian democracy right now.”

When it came to power in February, the military advertised its role as purely transitional. It promised elections and a transition to democracy within six months. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for Nov. 28, but the military has delayed a presidential vote until 2013.

The Egyptian military was a crucial part of the Mubarak regime. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the military council and is also commander of the armed forces, served as Mr. Mubarak’s defense minister. He is considered Egypt’s de facto interim president.

The Egyptian military has never been interested in forging a democratic political system along the lines that people were demanding in demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, said Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They may seek to upgrade some of the quasi- or pseudo-democratic practices that have been part of Egypt’s political system, but a transition to democracy harms the interests of the military, which is to remain the repository of the state’s legitimacy and to hold on to their economic activities,” said Mr. Cook, the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.”

The Egyptian Embassy in Washington declined to respond to a list of questions from The Times.

Police reform was another key demand of the protesters. However, torture, illegal detentions and violations of detainees’ rights continue, human rights and pro-democracy activists say.

“At this point, eight months later, the momentum for general reform within the government is now over,” Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said in a phone interview from Cairo.

“There was a change in the leader at the top, and beyond that there hasn’t been any change. The same practices we saw under the Mubarak regime continue,” she added.

The military reinstated and broadened the scope of a controversial emergency law, which had been in place since Islamists assassinated President Anwar Sadat in 1981. Under the law, police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship legalized.

President Obama urged Field Marshal Tantawi in a phone conversation on Monday to lift the emergency law and end military trials for civilians.

Egyptians’ anger at the slow pace of reform has been heightened by the dismal state of the country’s economy. Two key sources of income, tourism and foreign investment, have dried up since the protests erupted in January.

Attacks on Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s predominantly Muslim population, have increased since Mr. Mubarak’s ouster.

The most deadly of these incidents took place in Cairo’s Maspero district on Oct. 9. Several Coptic Christians taking part in a peaceful demonstration were crushed to death by military vehicles.

Human Rights Watch says the military is shielding the soldiers and cannot be trusted to investigate the incident impartially. It has called for a civilian-led investigation.

An increase in violence between Muslims and Christians could give the military an excuse to hijack the revolution, human rights and pro-democracy activists say.

Meanwhile, U.S. support for the military council is adding to the anger of pro-democracy groups in Egypt.

The United States is repeating mistakes of the past by backing the council instead of speaking out in support of the Egyptian people, Mr. Maher told The Times.

“[The Obama administration] must change its behavior to the Arab people,” he said.

U.S. officials, however, say the Obama administration is firmly behind the Egyptian people’s quest for a democratic transition.

“While we will not dictate outcomes in Egypt, we do support a set of clear principles,” said Noel Clay, a State Department spokesman.

The United States supports a peaceful and legitimate transition to a representative government committed to universal rights, he added.

“The U.S. got Egypt wrong for 30 years, and it is in danger of getting Egypt wrong now,” Brookings’ Mr. Hamid said. “We are going back to where we were under the Mubarak regime of prioritizing stability over democracy, of backing regimes.

“We have to do this right,” he added.

However, the Council on Foreign RelationsMr. Cook said the Obama administration has no option other than to deal with the military council, which holds executive power.

“The United States is caught betwixt and between on this issue, … but I don’t think Washington has any illusions about the military,” he said.

“At the moment, the Obama administration is confronted with an ineffective civilian interim government and a rather large number of disorganized and inchoate political parties.”

Egypt is one of the largest recipients of U.S. aid, with the military getting about $1.3 billion annually. That alone gives the United States significant leverage with the military and should be considered when putting pressure on the military council to facilitate a democratic transition, analysts and pro-democracy activists say.

The revolution set high expectations among Egyptians, raising the propensity for frustration.

“We all have a stake in seeing that Egypt emerges strongly from its political transition and that it can play its traditional leading role in regional stability,” Mr. Clay said.

“But this is going to take time, persistence and patience, and it’s often hard to be patient when there’s so much pent-up demand and hope for a better future.”