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posted: 6/17/2012 7:23 PM

As Egyptians vote, military flexes muscle

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  • An Egyptian elections official holds unusable ballots at a polling center after the second day of the presidential runoff, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday.

      An Egyptian elections official holds unusable ballots at a polling center after the second day of the presidential runoff, in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
Associated Press

CAIRO -- As Egyptians voted in a second day of elections for a successor to Hosni Mubarak, the ruling military issued an interim constitution Sunday defining the new president's authorities, a move that sharpened the confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood and showed how the generals will maintain the lion's share of power no matter who wins.

With parliament dissolved and martial law effectively in force, the generals granted themselves considerable authorities. They will be the country's lawmakers, control the budget and will control who writes the permanent constitution that will define the country's future.

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A significant question will be how their relationship will be with the new president who emerges from the Saturday-Sunday runoff between Ahmad Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister, and conservative Islamist Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Already, the Muslim Brotherhood was warning that they would launch protests if Shafiq is declared the winner. After polls closed Sunday night and counting began, the Brotherhood claimed to an early lead based on 1.38 million votes counted from 1 percent of the country's 12,000 polling stations -- with 61 percent to Morsi and 39 percent to Shafiq.

The sample was too small to indicate a real trend yet, but it showed the Brotherhood's eagerness to set Morsi out quickly as the front-runner. The figures were based on results announced by election officials at individual counting centers, where each campaign has representatives who compile the numbers and make them public before the formal declaration. Brotherhood announcements proved generally accurate in the first round of the election, held last month.

"If it happens that they announce he (Shafiq) is the winner, then there is forgery," said Brotherhood spokesman Murad Mohammed Ali. "We will return to the streets" -- though he added, "we don't believe in violence."

Shafiq, a former air force commander, is seen as the generals' favorite in the contest and would likely work closely with them. So closely that his opponents fear the result will be a continuation of the military-backed, authoritarian police state that Mubarak ran for nearly 29 years.

A victory by his opponent, the conservative Islamist Mohammed Morsi, could translate into a rockier tussle over spheres of power between his Muslim Brotherhood and the military.

Sunday, the Brotherhood seemed to lay the groundwork for a confrontation with the military over its power grab. It rejected last week's order by the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolving parliament, where they were the largest party, as a "coup against the entire democratic process." It also rejected the military's right to declare an interim constitution and vowed that an assembly created by parliament last week before its dissolution will write the new charter, not one picked by the generals.

However, the Brotherhood has reached accommodations with the generals at times over the past 16 months since Mubarak's fall, as it reached deals with Mubarak's regime itself. It also has no power to force recognition of the parliament-created constituent assembly, which already seems discounted after parliament's dissolution and is likely to be formally disbanded by a pending court ruling. Lawmakers are literally locked out of parliament, which is ringed by troops.

The race has already been deeply polarizing. Critics of Shafiq, an admirer and longtime friend of Mubarak, see him as an extension of the old regime that millions sought to uproot when they staged a stunning uprising that toppled the man who ruled Egypt for three decades.

Morsi's opponents, in turn, fear that if he wins, the Brotherhood will take over the nation and turn it into an Islamic state, curbing freedoms and consigning minority Christians and women to second-class citizens.

While each has a core of strong supporters -- each got about a quarter of the vote in the first round voting among 13 candidates last month -- others saw the choice as a bitter one. The prospect that the generals will still hold most power even after their nominal handover of authority to civilians by July 1 has deepened the gloom, leaving some feeling the vote was essentially meaningless.

"Things have not changed at all. It is as if the revolution never happened," Ayat Maher, a 28-year-old mother of three, said as she waited for her husband to vote in Cairo's central Abdeen district. She said she voted for Morsi, but did not think there was much hope for him. "The same people are running the country. The same oppression and the same sense of enslavement. They still hold the keys to everything."

The winner will be officially announced Thursday. But the result could be known by as early as Monday morning, based on the results from individual counting stations.

Turnout seemed tepid in most places over the two days of voting. If significantly lower than the 46 percent in last month's first round of the presidential election, it would be a sign of widespread discontent with the choice and doubts over the vote's legitimacy. There were no figures yet from the current voting.

The weekend election followed a series of developments last week that turned the transition period overseen by the generals on its head.

First, the military slapped de facto martial law on the country, giving military police and intelligence agents the right to arrest civilians for a host of suspected crimes, some as secondary as obstructing traffic. Later came the court ruling dissolving parliament and allowing Shafiq to stay in the race despite legislation barring Mubarak regime figures from running for office.

State TV said the ruling military council had issued the interim constitution, expected for the past several days. It gave no details, saying those would be revealed by the generals at a press conference Monday.

But according to a copy of the document obtained by The Associated Press, the generals would be the nation's de facto legislators and control the budget. They also will name the 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution, thus ensuring the new charter would guarantee them a say in key policies like defense and national security as well as shield their vast economic empire from civilian scrutiny.

The president will be able to appoint a Cabinet and have the powers to approve or reject laws.

The generals, mostly in their 60s and 70s, owe their ranks to the patronage of Mubarak and are led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the ousted leader's defense minister of 20 years. All along, activists from the pro-democracy youth groups that engineered the anti-Mubarak uprising questioned the generals' will to hand over power, arguing that after 60 years of direct or behind-the-scenes domination, the military was unlikely to voluntarily relinquish its perks.

Earlier Sunday, the Brotherhood's speaker of parliament Saad el-Katatni met with the deputy head of the military council, Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan and told him the group does not recognize the dissolution of parliament, according to a Brotherhood statement that pointedly referred to el-Katatni by his title.

El-Katatni insisted the military could not issue an interim constitution and that the constituent assembly formed last week would meet in the "coming hours" to go ahead with its work in writing the permanent charter.

Trying to rally the public in the last hours of voting, the Brotherhood presented a Morsi victory as the last hope to prevent total military control.

"We got rid of one devil and got 19," said Mohammed Kanouna, referring to Mubarak and the members of the military council as he voted for Morsi after night fell in Cairo's Dar el-Salam slum. "We have to let them know there is a will of the people above their will."

Security was tight in Cairo on Sunday, with heavier-than-usual army and police presence and army helicopters flying low over the sprawling city of some 18 million people.

Few voters displayed an air of celebration visible in previous post-Mubarak elections.

"It's a farce. I crossed out the names of the two candidates on my ballot paper and wrote `the revolution continues'," said architect Ahmed Saad el-Deen in Cairo's Sayedah Zeinab district.

"I can't vote for the one who killed my brother or the second one who danced on his dead body," he said, alluding to Shafiq's alleged role in the killing of protesters during last year's uprising and claims by revolutionaries that Morsi's Brotherhood rode the uprising to realize its own political goals.

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