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Armed forces, police set to lose out to presidency in Egypt's next constitution

Draft articles of Egypt's new national charter will vastly reduce powers of both army and police, yet critics say the vacuum is likely to be filled by an empowered presidency

Ekram Ibrahim , Sunday 30 Sep 2012
The fate of the iron fist defined
Egyptian army soldiers arrest a woman protester during clashes with army soldiers at the cabinet near Tahrir Square in Cairo December 16, 2011 (Photo: Reuters)
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Egypt's January 25 Revolution served to magnify tensions between the army and police on one hand and the Egyptian people on the other. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)'s 15-month stint as the country's de-facto ruler (from 28 January 2011 to June 30 of this year), along with accompanying instances of police brutality, have both put the spotlight on the military's role under the terms of Egypt's next constitution.

The army

The general sense is that the military's traditional authorities will be curtailed under the new constitution, giving it partial – rather than absolute – independence from other branches of government.

"The general public, along with members of the Constituent Assembly [tasked with drafting a new national charter], support the notion of limiting the military's powers," military expert Talaat Musalem said at a recent workshop organised by the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.

However, while draft articles of the new constitution have limited the authority of Egypt's military council, they have simultaneously granted the president of the republic several of the powers previously enjoyed by the military.

Moreover, the proposed articles fail to mention any legislative or executive oversight of Egypt's military budget, stating merely that the National Defence Council (NDC), recently established under the military rule, would have the right to discuss issues related to the military budget.

The military budget, and the Egyptian military's vast economic activities, has long constituted a red line for non-military institutions. Military officials have traditionally justified this by citing the mantra of "national security."

According to prominent liberal political analyst Amr Hamzawi, however, this as an "old authoritarian argument" that needs to be changed under the terms of Egypt's new constitution.

"There are several solutions to this," Hamzawi told Ahram Online. "The military budget can be discussed [by civilian officials] behind closed doors, or they can discuss all elements of the budget except for those pertaining to armaments."

Hamzawi went on to recommend that parliament be made the sole entity for overseeing the army budget.

Nasser Amin, for his part, director of the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession, believes it "would be fair enough if the National Defence Council was given the right to discuss the budget."

According to published draft constitutional articles, the president of the republic will remain head of the SCAF, and only he will have the right to declare war. However, the president will not be able to declare war without the approval of both parliament and the NDC.

Some critics, however, see the draft articles as more philosophical in nature than practical, as in the article that states: "The Egyptian Armed Forces belong to the people." According to Musalem, this article is intended to "let every soldier know that the weapon he's carrying belongs to the people and that he's only to wield it for the public's benefit and for nothing else."

Another article of the draft constitution grants the president the right to call up military forces in order "to protect civilians and institutions" inside the country after "consulting" with the NDC.

But the fact that the president must only "consult" with the NDC "leaves the power to deploy the military domestically in the hands of the president," Amin told Ahram Online. He recommended that the article be changed from "consulting" to "obtaining the NDC's approval."

Moreover, the draft article fails to mention that military forces deployed inside the country must abide by civil laws, which critics say is a crucial point. They note that, given the incidents of heavy-handed policing during Egypt's post-revolution transitional phase, it is vital to ensure that the army abide by civil laws when dealing with a civilian populace.

One final concern regarding the military's role in the proposed constitution is how NDC members will be selected. According to the draft charter, the president will have the right to appoint whoever he sees fit to the council, which will also include leaders of both houses of parliament (the People's Assembly and the Shura Council); the heads of the General and Military Intelligence; the armed forces chief-of-staff; the military chief of operations; and the commanders of Egypt's ground forces, air force and air-defence forces.

Amin, meanwhile, believes such a council would "include many unnecessary figures, who I think would only be appointed based on their loyalty to the president who gave them their positions."

The police

As for the role of the police under the new constitution, the draft charter includes only a single article, as had been the case in Egypt's 1971 constitution, which failed to state that the president represented the commander-in-chief of the police apparatus.

"This article confines the role of the police to safeguarding domestic security, which is a positive step," Amin said.

The main point stressed in the article is that the police must serve the people, laws and the national constitution. This means that police will be forbidden from following any order that conflicts with the law, while security officials will not be allowed to issue orders that contradict with the law.

In theory, this would solve the kind of dilemma seen at the height of last year's Tahrir Square uprising – when police opened fire on unarmed anti-regime protesters – and subsequent assertions that police should not be penalised for simply obeying orders.

But for this article to be effective, "the constitution must include a clause protecting policemen who disobey orders when those orders are illegal," Hafez Abu-Saeda, head of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, told Ahram Online.

Another concern about police-related draft articles is that they fail to include any mention of the application of human rights law. While some argue that Egyptian law should supersede human rights laws, Abu-Saeda asserted that, "internationally, human rights laws take precedence over national constitutions." 

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David couper
04-10-2012 08:41pm
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Chief of Police
One of the more important functions police do in a society is to be both peacekeeper and protector. How police respond to public protest is something in which we all should be concerned. For more on this and other important police improvement issues, see “Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police” (Amazon.com). And my blog at http://improvingpolice.wordpress.com/ where other current police improvement issues are discussed. The goal in a free society is to have great police. Great police are police who are well-trained and led, restrained in their use of force, honest, and courteous to every person.
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Hector M
15-10-2012 05:07am
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To David
David, are you expecting from worst to utopia state in Egypt. Under Pharoah Mubarak, the police brutality was at its peak. Now you want to spin magic wand and it is all utopia. Be realistic dont live in a lala land. Even in the so called your free society in the US and EU, and Israel, the police brutality is of major concern let alone the brutality of intelligence agencies also there. You may blog, and clog, Egypt will be successful in having best polices force in the area though slowly, but surely.
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