The military council governing Egypt is moving to lay down ground rules for a new constitution that would protect and potentially expand its own authority indefinitely, possibly circumscribing the power of future elected officials.
The military announced on Tuesday it planned to adopt a “declaration of basic principles” to govern the drafting of a constitution and liberals here initially welcomed the move as a concession to their demand for a US Bill of Rights-style guarantee of civil liberties that would limit the potential repercussions of an Islamist victory at the polls.
However, legal experts enlisted by the military to write the declaration say that it will spell out the armed forces’ role in the civilian government, potentially shielding the defense budget from public or parliamentary scrutiny and protecting the military’s vast economic interests. Proposals under consideration would give the military a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics to protect national unity or the secular character of the state. A top general publicly suggested such a role, according to a report last month in the Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The military plans to adopt the document on its own, before any election, referendum or constitution sets up a civilian authority, said Mohamed Nour Farahat, a law professor working on the declaration. That would represent an about-face for a force that, after helping to oust former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak five months ago, consistently pledged to turn over power to elected officials who would draft a constitution. Though the proposed declaration might protect liberals from an Islamist-dominated constitution, it could also limit democracy by shielding the military from full civilian control.
The military is long accustomed to virtual autonomy. Its budget has never been disclosed to parliament and its operations extend into commercial businesses like hotels, consumer electronics, bottled water and car manufacturing.
Some are already criticizing the military’s plans as a usurpation of the democratic process. Ibrahim Dawrish, an Egyptian legal academic involved in devising a new Turkish constitution to reduce the political role of its armed forces, said the Egyptian military appeared to be emulating its Turkish counterpart. After a 1980 coup, the Turkish -military assigned itself a broad role in politics as guarantor of the secular state and in the process, contributed to years of political turbulence.
“The Constitution can’t be monopolized by one institution,” he said. “It is parliament that makes the Constitution, not the other way around.”
Jurists involved in drafting the text say the Egyptian military told them to draw from several competing proposals that are circulating in Cairo. At least one assigns only a narrow, apolitical role to the military as guardian of national sovereignty, but others grant it sweeping authority and independence or a writ to intercede in civilian politics similar to the Turkish model.
Others picked by the governing council to draft the declaration have argued publicly for a broad, Turkish-style role for the Egyptian armed forces in post-revolutionary politics.
“The military in Egypt is unlike militaries in other countries where the military is isolated from the political life,” said Tahani el Gebali, a judge involved in the drafting. “The military’s legacy gives it a special credibility, and hence it is only normal that the military will share some of the responsibility in protecting the constitutional legitimacy and the civil state.”
Liberals have advocated a code of agreed-upon universal rights as a compromise in the increasingly bitter debate between Islamists calling for an early election and liberals demanding a constitution first. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, whose own proposal includes a provision that narrowly defines the military’s role guarding national security, said the declaration “really should be put to a referendum so it would have some legitimacy.”
That is especially relevant now, because the military council has come under mounting criticism for its opaque and inaccessible decision-making, occasionally heavy-handed tactics against civilian protesters, continued trials of civilians in military courts and intimidation of journalists who criticize it. Many have grown especially impatient with the pace of legal action against Mubarak and other former officials.
The protests are increasingly taking aim at the military. On Thursday, a coalition of 24 groups and five presidential contenders endorsed a call by the young leaders of the protests for the military to cede more power to a civilian government now rather than wait for elections.
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