Cairo on knife-edge as American funding flows

Egyptian presidential election transitioning from farce to tragedy

By Magdi Abdelhadi

An Egyptian columnist wrote recently that the country’s political scene resembled a soccer game where several teams were playing with multiple balls on a field with no referee, no white lines and fans on the pitch, cheering.

He should have added that the United States was paying for the popcorn.

Protesters chant slogans against the military council at Tahrir Square in Cairo on June 20, 2012. Tensions soared when Egyptian election officials delayed announcing the country’s new president. (Reuters/Asmaa Waguih)

The dizzying number of actors and intrigues in Egyptian politics challenge anyone commenting on the chaos. The rules are made and unmade as the game unfolds. Egypt’s transition from autocracy to democracy looks increasingly like a political farce.

American taxpayers especially should follow the twists and turns, given their participation in the process. Egypt receives $1.3 billion annually in American military aid, according to the U.S. State Department. The U.S. Agency for International Development has also given more than $28 billion to Egypt since 1975, on average another $750 million a year.

That money has helped prop up the regime that Egyptians on the street are trying to replace, but it also gives the U.S. a unique voice in the drama playing out in Cairo. Clearly, though, American money has not seeded institutions ready to adopt American-style democracy.

Not constitutional

Here’s what Americans need to know: a year and a half after Mubarak’s overthrow, Egypt is largely rudderless and without a new constitution. But, paradoxically, it has retained a Mubarak-era Constitutional Court. It was this “Constitution-less” court that last week dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament elected by the people. That move delighted so-called liberals who supposedly believe in the rule of law and the ballot box but don’t like Islamists.

The court’s verdict came only days after the parliament elected the Constituent Assembly, a panel established to draft a new constitution. It’s not the first time Egypt’s constitutional hopes were quashed. A previous panel was formed after months of wrangling but was declared illegal by another court.

Members of the dissolved parliament have vowed to challenge the ruling. But those who tried to access the building this week were prevented from doing so by the military and police.

If you think this is getting messy, dear Americans, just wait.

The non-choice election

Egyptian Islamist presidential candidate Mohammed Mursi. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

The second round of the presidential election was supposed to bring this muddled transition to a close. Instead, it became the moment when the revolution impaled itself on the ballot: voting was not the ultimate victory of the freedom to choose, but a self-defeating act of non-choice.

The two main presidential candidates were Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brothers and Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force chief who also served briefly as Mubarak’s last prime minister. Each received around 25 percent of the vote in the first round — a resounding ‘No’ to both the Muslim Brothers and the old regime. Most votes went to three other centrist candidates, but none got enough votes to contest the runoff.

The lackluster results led many dismayed Egyptians not to vote in the second round. A great many who voted did so not FOR a candidate but rather AGAINST the other rival. Many who chose Shafiq did so because they feared the Muslim Brothers. Some who voted for Mursi dreaded the prospect of a return to the old regime.

Mursi looked poised to win. Then the ruling generals suddenly changed the rules yet again by issuing a highly controversial document.

Egypt has been ruled by a “constitutional declaration” authored by the generals last year. Last week, the same generals produced a “supplementary declaration” that says they will keep the armed forces’ budget and other military matters away from public scrutiny. Americans screamed when it came out that the U.S. military was paying $800 for a toilet seat. In Egypt, the military can buy gilded toilet seats, and no one will know.

The generals also gave themselves powers to veto anything they don’t like in any new constitution that happens to emerge.

Guess who is the ultimate arbitrator if there is a conflict between the military and everyone else? It’s the Mubarak-era Constitutional Court that just dissolved parliament. Presiding over the court is a former military judge, Farouk Sultan.

Former prime minister, air force chief and current presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq. (Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Worse, Egypt’s Justice Ministry last week issued a decree allowing the military to arrest civilians. This in effect means reinstating the notorious emergency laws that have been in place for decades but were only lifted last month.

A non-democratic transition

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley told the BBC that Egypt likely will see a transition in leadership, but it “will not necessarily be democratic.”

Asked whether President Obama should endorse Mursi, who appears to have won the election, Crowley alluded to how the Pentagon has close military ties to the generals who appear to be undermining democratic process.

“You’ve got the military saying basically ‘We will be above the law, we will be above the executive, we don’t believe in civilian control of the military’ — that’s going to present a policy dilemma for the U.S.,” he said.

Does the U.S. have any teeth?

According to The New York Times, American officials have warned Egypt’s military that they risk losing their billions if they renege on their promise to hand over power to an elected president and parliament. But those warnings have amounted to nothing, as cutting off aid would harm American contractors and cost jobs.

Now, Cairo is on a knife-edge as the Muslim Brothers and other pro-democracy groups threaten to occupy Tahrir Square and force their way into parliament unless the generals reverse themselves.

Shafiq has also now claimed he won the vote, sparking fears of election fraud, since many Egyptians believe Mursi won.

The official announcement on a winner was due today, June 21, but it was postponed. Elections officials said they needed more time to examine hundreds of complaints of voting irregularities on both sides. The reviews have aroused suspicions that something is afoot.

There is one thing the presidential election appears to have achieved. It’s given Egyptians, and Americans, a stark choice between the only two players on the field: the non-democratic military and the freely elected Islamists.