Egypt's Generals Retake Power

June 18, 2012

Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egyptian elections
Supporters of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Mursi (portrait) celebrate in Cairo's Tahrir square on June 18, 2012. PATRICK BAZ/AFP/GettyImages

Over the last four days, a stunning succession of events has cast doubt on whether Egypt will transition to an accountable system of government:

  1. Egypt’s Supreme Court nullified recent parliamentary elections.
  2. Egypt’s military disbanded Parliament and assumed legislative powers.
  3. Egypt’s Minister of Justice expanded the military’s powers to arrest civilians.

All of this happened on the eve of this weekend’s runoff elections for the presidency.  On Saturday and Sunday, voters went to the polls to choose between two presidential candidates — Mubarak’s last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mursi has claimed victory, and Egyptian media are also reporting that to be the case. Whoever wins the presidency will take office without a parliament, a constitution, or defined presidential powers, and will have to negotiate with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) —  the military leadership.

Meanwhile, the SCAF military leadership has continued its reconsolidation of power.  As reported in The New York Times, the SCAF has just issued its own “interim constitution” as a prelude to taking control of the final constitution writing process itself:

Their charter gives them [SCAF military leaders] control of all laws and the national budget, immunity from any oversight and the power to veto a declaration of war.  After dissolving the Brotherhood-led Parliament elected four months ago, and locking out its lawmakers, the generals on Sunday night also seized control of the process of writing a permanent constitution.

Egypt’s military leaders have stated that they will turn over power to the newly elected president by the end of June, but such statements are incongruous with their recent actions.

Since the January 25th 2011 revolution that swept the dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, Egypt’s military leaders and security forces have routinely violated the human rights of many Egyptians.  Critics of military rule have faced criminal charges, protestors have been shot by security forces, women protesters have been assaulted in Tahrir Square, and thousands of Egyptians have been tried in military courts that do not meet basic standards of fairness.

The days ahead are filled with uncertainty.  For human rights advocates in the US, it will be important to push our own government to stand up publicly for human rights in Egypt.  US State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland did address some of the recent developments in her Friday comments to reporters:

The court has called for new elections. If, in fact, that’s the direction that Egypt goes, they need to be swift, they need to be fully democratic, free, transparent, so that we can move on to giving the Egyptian people what they want, which is an elected president and an elected parliament and a system that is permanent and sustainable.

But in this time of significant uncertainty, the Obama administration needs to go one step further. The US government has long prioritized its military-to-military relationship with Egyptian officials over human rights concerns.  The Obama administration should now explicitly state its support for an Egyptian government rooted in accountability and respect for human rights – not an expansion of power for the very military institutions that have violated those human rights.

This is a critical moment for Egypt’s future.