Human rights groups are fretting over a law issued by President Mohamed Morsi on 9 December giving soldiers policing powers. The military will enjoy policing rights until the results of the 15 December referendum on a new constitution are announced. Military sources were quoted on Tuesday saying they’ll be protecting “vital” institutions and headquarters but not polling stations.
The source said that Morsi had to grant the military judicial authority because the emergency law is no longer in effect and the military’s presence needs “legal” and “legitimate” cover during their deployment time which starts tomorrow (Friday).
Human Rights Watch’s Egypt director Heba Morayef says the problem with the law is that it allows the military to refer civilians to military courts and the consequences are dire, as witnessed during the 18 months of military rule that followed Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
A slur from a civilian to a military officer could be translated to a “verbal assault” on the armed forces and referred to military jurisdiction. The period from March until the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) handed over power to Egypt’s first elected president last July, is rife with incidents involving civilians, more than 12,000 of whom were tried before military courts.
There is serious concern about the possibility of the military abusing such power.
“They’re not well trained in law enforcement and there’s no accountability when it comes to the armed forces and nothing to deter them,” says Morayef.
It’s unsurprising that Morsi sought the military’s assistance during the referendum process. Opposition demonstrations over the past two weeks have marched more than once to the presidential palace, crossing barbed wire barriers despite the presence of security forces and the Republican Guard. Morsi’s chief of staff Refaa El-Tahtawy implied in an evening talk show on Monday that the interior ministry deliberately failed to protect the palace from protestors who reached its gates but did not attempt to storm in.
Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party spokesmen have also accused the interior ministry of failing to protect their offices from sabotage and arson.
What rights watchers don’t understand is why the military’s presence also includes giving them policing powers. The confusion was cleared on Tuesday when the presidency announced the military’s judicial powers will allow them to arrest civilians but not refer them to military courts.
The military’s return to the political scene started on Saturday morning, a few hours ahead of a dialogue to which Morsi invited the opposition in an attempt to find a way out of the impasse he caused by issuing the controversial constitutional declaration that gave him absolute power and placed his actions beyond judicial review. The opposition National Salvation Front declined the invitation unless Morsi revokes the constitutional declaration and postpones the referendum.
A brief statement issued by the armed forces on Saturday morning expressed “sadness” and “concern” at the situation and called on both sides to engage in dialogue as the “only” option to achieve accord and prevent Egypt from entering a “dark tunnel” the consequences of which will be disastrous.
“We will not allow that to happen” read the statement.
Despite the opposition’s position Morsi went ahead with his dialogue anyway, meeting with a group of politicians and public figures, including the FJP party’s chairman.
The meeting resulted in a new constitutional declaration revoking the previous one and an announcement that the referendum would be held on Saturday, as scheduled. This seems to have contained public anger and divided the opposition.
But as political tensions seemed to subside, confusion resurfaced on Tuesday evening when Minister of Defence Abdel-Fatah El-Sissy made a surprise call for “lunch” with political forces and media figures which was scheduled today, but was cancelled in the eleventh hour. As with the military’s statement on Saturday, El-Sissy’s call raised more questions than it answered concerning the armed forces role in politics, not least because Morsi, who is commander in chief of the Armed Forces and who appointed El-Sissy, was invited. The presidency announced he would attend.
Since Morsi’s soft coup in August when he forced the military’s top brass into retirement the army appears to have stepped back from politics, at least on the surface. There were hopes a new civilian chapter was beginning. Today such hopes look premature.
If the military’s status (insulated from parliamentary oversight) in the existing draft constitution is most problematic for the revolutionary opposition, the armed forces political statement on Saturday morning and Sissy’s lunch invitation served as a reminder that it remains the most important centre of power in Egypt.
Equally significant were the Muslim Brotherhood’s political statements on the same day. First came the Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badei, who spoke in a press conference defending the Brotherhood’s image. He was followed by his multimillionaire deputy, Khairat El-Shater. The group’s most powerful figure convened his own press conference, his first public appearance in months. Clearly agitated, El-Shater accused unspecified regional and domestic counter-revolutionary forces of seeking to destabilize Morsi in an attempt to restore the old regime under a new guise. He questioned the extent of the opposition’s support and defended his group’s rallying around the president and “legitimacy.”
There is no evidence that the military and the Brotherhood’s statements were coordinated. But because neither institution is avowedly political their appearance on the same day, conveying political messages, is significant.
Observers suggest that the pressure both were under left no room for political correctness from either party. The military won’t pretend that it is confined to barracks, nor is the Brotherhood pretending any longer that it operates independently from the presidency and its political wing, the FJP.
The military and Brotherhood addressed different audiences. Rabab El-Mahdi, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, says El-Shater was addressing his base, stressing the notion that they’re on the right path and emphasizing ideology by pitting “good Islamists” against secularists and counter revolutionaries. The military, on the other hand, foregrounded its “parallel state”, in El-Mahdi’s words, and its occupation of a space “above the state’s institutions”.
The common element was a shared unwillingness to engage in a conflict that could weaken the position of either, though El-Mahdi notes that “isn’t threatened at this point”.
Both Morsi and the Brotherhood are clearly interested securing the military’s approval, says El-Mahdi.
“They want to buy the army’s loyalty so that if taking sides has to happen the military will take their side.”
The constitution, and now the decree giving the military policing powers, is a recognition of the “special status” of the armed forces. Now we know what the balance of power is, Human Rights Watch’s Morayef says.
“We don’t need to guess anymore. It’s written on paper.”