Egypt: The Islamist Takeover Begins?
by THE EDITOR
February 16, 2011
The Egyptian privately-owned news website Almasry Alyoum reported yesterday that the new head of Egypt's constitutional reform panel is a “moderate Islamist.” Passing over the confusion of what a “moderate Islamist” could be, the man is Judge Tarek al-Beshry (also spelled al-Bishry). This man is described by Xinhuanet as “a respected former head of the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court.”
“He has criticized the Coptic Church but he has also criticized the Muslim Brotherhood and the former regime. The military council consulted widely before appointing him, and he had consensus support.”
(Hizb) Al-Wasat, or “The Center (party)”, the group to which al-Beshry is associated, was founded in 1996 by Muslim Brotherhood members. There had been arguments between the Ikhwan and Al-Wasat, but in April 2009 the group joined the “Egyptian Coalition for Change,” an anti-Mubarak alliance which included individuals from the Muslim Brotherhood. This multi-party alliance had formed in 2005 and gained approval from the Ikhwan. Though Al-Wasat claims to be “universalist,” and has even invited members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority to join its ranks, it argues for Egypt to have strong links with Arab countries, both militarily and politically. Considering the history of pan-Arabism, Al-Wasat’s ideals – if implemented - are hardly likely to benefit Israel. Al-Wasat has a Facebook page.
Another man who will be on Egypt’s eight-member constitution reform panel is Sobhy Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan). He is a former MP, who acted as secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood’s parliamentary bloc. In the election of 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood gained more than a fifth of the seats in the 454-seat parliament. They gained 88 seats in the parliament by posing as “independents.”
Sobhy Saleh (pictured above) was recently described in not-too-objective terms by the New York Times as:
“a distinguished 57, clean-shaven, with white hair, wearing an orange sweater and black flip-flops. He has a leopard tissue cozy: not a leopard-print container, but what looks like a toy stuffed animal around his tissue box. He is immediately engaging, the kind of person you shake hands with at a conference then find yourself telling people, “He’s such a nice guy,” without really knowing why. It has to do with the way he laughs at the absurdity, even the pain, of life as he tells his harrowing story of the past few days.”
According to the Ikhwan’s English-language website, the purpose of the constitutional reform panel is to change six articles in the constitution:
The abolition of Article 179 which restricts people's freedoms and rights in the name of security will be considered along with amendments to articles 76, 77, 88, 93, and 189. Article 76 restricts the ability to nominate presidential candidates; article 77 does not set a limit for presidential terms; article 88 limits judicial oversight of elections; article 93 grants parliament sole authority for determining the legitimacy of MP memberships and article 189 gives the president and the People's Assembly exclusive rights to amend the constitution.
To put it briefly, the constitution reform panel has ten days (starting from today) in which it “must amend the articles to prevent giving presidents unlimited terms in office and the right to refer cases to military courts.”
However, it has been argued that because of the nature of the individuals on the constitution reform panel, it is unlikely that one controversial clause in the constitution will be abolished. This is Article 2, which maintains that Islam is the state religion and Sharia is the main source of law. Wael Abbas, a human rights blogger who was imprisoned by Mubarak last year, said the decision to appoint al-Beshry was “worrying”, adding “There is no such thing as a moderate Islamist.” Abbas also said:
“The army seems to have made some sort of deal with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Britain’s left-leaning Guardian newspaper reported yesterday that “key political activists” in Egypt have expressed fears that the army could be hijacking the revolution. The article’s author, Jack Shenker, quotes one unnamed activist who said:
“Many of us are now realizing that a very well thought-out plan is unfolding step by step from the military, who of course have done very well out of the political and economic status quo. These guys are expert strategic planners after all, and with the help of some elements of the old regime and some small elements of the co-opted opposition, they're trying to develop a system that looks vaguely democratic but in reality just entrenches their own privileges.”
I discussed the theoretical problems of having the army remaining in power after the populist revolt in my last Editorial. The man who has put together the individuals who now comprise the constitutional reform panel is Field Marshall Mohamed Husain Tantawi, who is also head of Egypt’s Higher Military Council. Tantawi served as the defense minister under Mubarak’s presidency, and when the government was disbanded on January 29, he was additionally given the role of deputy prime minister by Mubarak.
Field Marshall Mohamed Husain Tantawi, currently Egypt’s leader.
The position of Tantawi could be seen as a good or bad thing, depending on one’s political perspective. On June 29, 2009, CENTCOM commander General Petraeus had met with Tantawi in the latter’s capacity as Egyptian defense minister. According to U.S. cables gained by Wikileaks and passed to the U.K. Telegraph newspaper, and they discussed Egypt’s efforts to stem arms-smuggling, with Egypt claiming success in intercepting illicit arms arriving from Sudan. According to Major General Fouad al-Helmi, Assistant Minister of Defense, in the Sinai 346 smuggling tunnels into Gaza had been discovered that year. Helmi suggested “that they were on pace to surpass the 500 tunnel openings discovered in 2008.” However, the Egyptian Director of Military Intelligence, Major General Mourad Mowafi claimed that they had found only “food and consumer products” in the Gaza tunnels , and no evidence of rockets or small arms. Petraeus spoke of arms coming in from Iran to Yemen, then across the Red Sea to Sudan, then into Egypt and up to Sinai where they passed into Gaza. The Egyptians claimed that there was apprehension about Iran’s influence in the Middle East.
In another set of U.S. diplomatic cables leaked via Wikileaks to the Telegraph newspaper and published yesterday, some disturbing facts emerge about 74-year old Tantawi. In March 2008, he had claimed that he opposed political reform in Egypt. One cable stated:
Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power. He is supremely concerned with national unity, and has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political or religious cleavages within Egyptian society.
On Sunday January 30, as I mentioned earlier, the British news source the Sunday Times had reported in its print edition that two senior generals had asked Mubarak to step down. One of these was General Omar Suleiman, who had just been given the post of vice-president, a post that had not previously existed under Mubarak’s 29-year presidency. The other general who had urged Mubarak to step down was Mohamed Tantawi. Currently, the nation is not even operating under a constitution, as on Sunday February 13, the military suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament.
According to the South African Times Live, Muslim Brotherhood member of the constitution reform panel Sobhy Saleh has announced today: “We will finish the revisions in 10 days, and the referendum and the results will be completed in two months. The military has promised that the referendum will be guarded by the army and the police.”
Dr. Mohamed Morsy.
On Tuesday, the day that the identities of the constitution reform panel’s members were announced, the Muslim Brotherhood also announced that it is planning its own political party. Dr. Mohamed Morsy, the Ikhwan’s media spokesman, said that the Brotherhood’s views were only to be expressed by six people. According to the Ikhwanweb English language website:
“the group has issued a statement highlighting that its views and stances are expressed solely by the group’s chairman, two deputies and three official media spokesmen.
On this note, the group confirms that as always it believes in freedom of expression and freedom to form a political party. In the past the group was prevented from forming a party since any documents had to pass through a committee controlled by the former ruling National Democratic Party.”
It is intriguing that such a statement should be issued. Does it suggest that there may be some dichotomy of opinion within the senior echelons of the Ikhwan, necessitating a demand that only the views of an elite are to be accepted as “authentic” policy? Or are only a few individuals privy to knowledge of a potential deal that may have been struck with the military?
There has been much written about the “revolution” in Egypt that glamorizes it. The people have deposed a dictator who ruled in tandem with a military regime, and now the army is in a greater position of power than it was before the revolt.
Last week, one CBS correspondent, Lara Logan, had been sexually assaulted and beaten by elements within the crowds at Tahrir Square. The man credited with precipitating the uprising is Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who was carted off by Mubarak henchmen and incarcerated for twelve days. According to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt, Google was “very proud” of what Ghonim had done. Ghonim told CBS that “Without Facebook, without Twitter, without Google, without You Tube, this would have never happened.”
The American administration is still making out that the Egyptian people’s revolt has been a positive step forward. Until there are genuinely free and fair elections, and until the time when the military – which has been the power behind three presidents stretching back to the 1952 Free Officers’ revolution - stops calling all the shots, it would be wise to reserve judgment.