- - Monday, December 10, 2012

CAIRO — The military’s role in post-revolutionary Egypt is being scrutinized as backers and foes of the country’s Islamist president are organizing massive rallies for Tuesday.

The rallies are being planned to voice support and opposition in the runup to Saturday’s referendum on a draft constitution that would give clerics a lawmaking role in this secular Arab nation.

President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree late Sunday placing the military and police jointly in charge of maintaining public order and allowing the army to arrest civilians.

But opposition groups are crying foul, seeing it as a move to rein them in as they pressure Mr. Morsi to stop the constitutional vote.

Analysts say that underlying that worry is a concern that the military will play a bigger role in politics in the future.

“The opposition is reading this as either the creeping re-emergence of military-backed politics or the military protecting the president — and by extension the Muslim Brotherhood,” said David Hartwell, Middle East analyst at the defense and security analysis firm IHS Jane’s in London. “So this is being seen as a worrying development.”

Liberal and secular opposition groups have expressed alarm over what they see as attempts by the government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, to firm up its grip over the country, which held its first democratic elections in 2011.

Mr. Morsi, who took office in June, issued decrees in November vastly extending his powers free of judicial oversight. He rescinded those Saturday.

But that move came after the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Constituent Assembly rushed through the approval for the draft constitution in late November.

Some argue that the constitution also grants the military too much power, allowing it to try civilians in military courts and control its own budget and stipulating that defense ministers must be army officers.

“I think everything that the military wanted, they got,” said political sociology professor Said Sadek of the American University in Cairo. “A lot of concessions were given to the military, and that is why they did not withdraw from the Constituent Assembly.”

Mr. Sadek said he thinks those concessions were part of an understanding between Mr. Morsi and the military.

“It’s a revolution of deals and arrangements, and understandings and decisions, and let’s say favors,” he said.

After Egyptians took to the streets in January 2011 to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule, a group of generals — the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — took control. But now, with Mr. Morsi in power, some are outraged to see the military step in to suppress public dissent.

“It’s absolutely ridiculous,” said Mostafa Hamdy, 26, at a grocery store in Cairo. “It’s what the current government complained about during the last days of SCAF, and that’s what they’re resorting to [in order] to pass their silly excuse for a constitution.”

Human rights officials also expressed concern over the decrees.

“Considering the track record of the army while they were in charge, with more than 120 protesters killed and in excess of 12,000 civilians unfairly tried before military courts, this sets a dangerous precedent,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.

Others welcomed the military taking an active role in keeping the peace.

“The police do not have ability to control the streets, and with the violence going on now, I think this is not bad,” said Ahmed Hassan, a lawyer from the Nile Delta who backs Mr. Morsi, referring to the military’s role in keeping the peace. “It’s very important to control the streets. Most people I met with today agree with that — they feel more secure.”

After violent demonstrations last week, the army began sealing off the areas around the presidential palace on Thursday.

But the military has not yet come to blows with protesters, who were allowed to scrawl graffiti on the palace walls.

“The military is not going to rush to intervene because it understands that intervention would have a very high cost and would not be welcomed by the majority of the population as it was a couple of years ago,” said Mazen Hassan, political science lecturer at Cairo University.

Ruby Russell reported from Berlin.



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