CAIRO — Egyptians who frequently take the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road have lately noticed that the fee they usually pay to toll collectors now goes to the Ministry of Defense.Liberals who don't mind authoritarianism as long as it comes from their perceived saviours.
In a press conference in November, the Minister of Transportation announced one of the armed forces’ companies had been granted legal rights, for 50 years, to develop the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road.
The army, a state within a state that used to protect its interests from the shadows, is now taking bolder steps to cement its power and asserting, increasingly overtly, that it is accountable to no one.
The party is over for the democratization drive that was heralded by the January 2011 uprising — none of the revolution’s demands have been achieved; none of the Interior Ministry’s notorious practices have stopped; and the ministry seems to be on a mission to silence all dissent.
The army has been empowered by popular support from a considerable segment of the population as an ultra-nationalist mood sweeps the country. Its absolute dominance will be more solidly institutionalized if the 2013 draft Constitution gets ratified in the January referendum, as is widely expected.
Pundits can debate the Constitution’s 240-plus articles as much as they want, but all the details are overshadowed by the articles enshrining the military’s special privileges. Article 234 gives the military the final say over who may be appointed as defense minister. Others mandate that the military’s budget be listed as a single entry in national accounts and that civilians may be tried before military courts if they assault members of the armed forces in military zones and military-owned properties, which in Egypt includes everything from gas stations to wedding halls.
The army runs its own shadow economy, which reportedly constitutes at least a quarter of the country’s economy and there is no transparency to speak of. This is particularly disturbing given that Transparency International already ranks Egypt 114 out of 177 countries on its Corruption Perception Index.
Articles on rights, including women’s rights, have dominated the media frenzy over the Constitution. But such articles are of little value in a country where extreme poverty already forces some families to sell their underage daughters into temporary, recurrent marriages to Arab Gulf millionaires.
The military has maintained its autonomy for decades, including under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, who wooed the army in the hope that it would protect his rule (which it didn’t).
The now-suspended 2012 Constitution that Mr. Morsi and the Brotherhood backed also institutionalized military trials for civilians and immunized the military’s budget from civilian scrutiny.
But after July 3, the army has fortified its powers in a way that hasn’t been so open since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s heyday. Contrary to the hopes of a segment of democrats, the masses who went out in the streets against Mr. Morsi welcomed the army’s stronger role in Egypt’s politics. Instead of insisting on democratic values and civilian rule as a framework for the transitional period, many Egyptians seemed nostalgic about a romantic image of the army as the only savior from “foreign conspiracies.”
Moreover, in the past months the army has capitalized on the public’s fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. Suddenly many of the self-proclaimed liberals who were outspoken during Mr. Morsi’s rule have revealed another face, showing that they don’t mind authoritarianism and human rights violations as long as such violations don’t come from Islamists.
A majority of Egyptians are expected to vote yes on the new Constitution, perhaps in the hope that this will bring them stability and will consolidate the army’s victory over the Muslim Brotherhood, which is regarded as the source of all evil thanks to a vigorous anti-Islamist media campaign as well as the Brotherhood’s own mistakes. Other political forces have largely lost their credibility: Egyptians seem to be tired of watching them compete with no regard for the needs of a country that has been drained by three years of upheaval and economic decline.
But with time, and as more and more Muslim Brothers fill the country’s prisons, it will become clearer to Egyptians that the real sources of evil are military hegemony; corruption; lack of transparency, rule of law, social justice, human rights and freedoms.
With all the privileges and powers it enjoys, the army has so far failed to bring stability. Last week’s bombing of a police station in Mansoura killed 16 people, reminding Egyptians of the Islamist violence that rocked Egypt in the 1980s and 1990s.
There are elites who seem to believe that their interests will be guaranteed by the army’s hegemony, namely Egypt’s upper-middle class citizens whose priority is to sustain their comfortable lives. They are joined by corrupt businessmen, who fear that if real democracy ever takes root it will be coupled by the imposition of transparency measures.
Ultimately, those who saw the military as a better alternative to the Brotherhood will realize the magnitude of injustice that the military’s wide-ranging authorities could bring to all aspects of Egyptian life.