On the face of it, the decision taken this week by Egypt's Supreme Military Council (SCAF) to shorten the transition of power to civilian rule may sounded like a step in the right direction: It provided for a two-stage general election to take place on Jan. 29-30 and Feb. 14-15, with runoffs if necessary scheduled as early as Feb. 7and 22.
But this rescheduling of elections rattled policy-makers in Washington badly. They saw it as a step backward from the democratization of Egypt rather than forward, taken by the generals led by SCAF chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi in their eagerness to wash their hands of government and be shot of power.
The Obama administration's plan for post-Mubarak Egypt depended on the military junta hanging on until Egypt had a new constitution and an elected president. The generals were to have kept a watchful eye on the writing of the constitution to make sure it brought democracy to Egypt and paved the way for the election of a moderate president acceptable to the Egyptian street and endorsed by the military elite.
But the army chiefs have chosen instead to undo the moment a year ago when they forced Hosni Mubarak to step down in response to popular disturbances in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Ismailia. Now, all they want is to retire to their quarters and spend all their time on military duties and their broad business interests.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Washington sources report that the SCAF generals rushed their new decisions in secret, without initially informing Washington.
The military are running away from intractable crises
This reversal is a reflection of their despair over the magnitude of the tasks confronting government in Cairo: Egypt is sunk in chaos and economic ruin at a time of international economic slowdown; the entire region is sliding into armed hostilities involving the US, Iran and Israel – at the very least. SCAF heads have chosen to run for the exits and watch from the wings how Egypt's civilian leaders and Islamist politicians cope with these intractable crises.
It is taken for granted in Egypt and in other capitals, including Washington, that if the worst comes to the worst, the generals can ride their tanks back to the seat of government in Cairo and take charge.
Meanwhile, they are not waiting for the newly-elected parliament to write a new constitution or for a new president to be installed. The SCAF will step down as soon as parliament convenes in late February or early March. Tantawi will then hand the presidential powers he holds to the new Speaker of Parliament.
This decision was found In Washington to have at least seven ramifications for the future of Egypt and the Arab Revolt at large:
1. Under the current Egyptian constitution, it is legal for the Speaker to assume the president's duties if he is unable to exercise them himself.
2. The current Egyptian constitution also grants the Egyptian president unlimited jurisdiction over every facet of Egyptian life – which is why the protest movement and the US made the drafting of a new constitution mandatory.
The next Speaker of Parliament will be Acting President
3. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party emerged from the first rounds of the general election as the leading party with 43 percent of the vote. The FJP will therefore appoint the next Speaker and so win a clear run to government in three to four months at most.
The Obama administration never imagined the Egyptian revolution would be compressed in a time warp and the Muslim Brotherhood brought to rule at this early stage. The new constitution was to have been drafted first, followed by a presidential election fought by moderate politicians and military men, past and present, to act as counterweights for the rising Islamic fundamentalists and force them into moderating their ways.
But the precipitate actions of Egypt's generals have forced an unprepared Washington to rethink this scenario.
4. US officials have no illusions that once ruling power passes to the Speaker and reposes in Muslim Brotherhood hands, they will not let go in a hurry. They know they must forget about drafting a new democratic and liberal Egyptian constitution, because the Muslim Brotherhood will quickly set about imposing Sharia – Islamic law – on the more than 70 million Egyptians.
5. Cairo's political watchers have switched from sizing up the majority the Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party can expect to garner in the new parliament and are now trying to guess the identity of the new Speaker, the future recipient of presidential powers from Field Marshal Tantawi.
Islamists in Arab Spring countries will follow Egypt
6. For Washington, Egypt's amended transition process bodes ill for the Arab Spring in other countries, especially Syria. Islamists across the Arab world will want to take a leaf out of the Egyptian book as a short cut to assuming power, imposing Sharia and forcing the military to stay out of politics.
7. The process in Cairo is already well advanced; The Islamists are behaving as though they are already in power.
On Jan. 2, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan told the “Haqeeqa” talk show on private satellite channel Dream TV that the group might consider granting SCAF members of the military council immunity from prosecution for their misdeeds in return for a peaceful handover of power.
He explained that the Brotherhood would prefer to hold the generals accountable for their actions, but if this was the will of other political groups, the MB would go along with immunity to save the country the “trouble” of more violence and instability as "the lesser of two evils."
The families of "martyrs" would be compensated financially instead.
The Brotherhood spokesman rejected comparisons between the generals and the ousted president because, he said, “There is proof that Mubarak ordered the killings of protesters while this is not the case with regard to the recent killings."
The Brotherhood therefore felt strong enough to publicly offer Egypt's military leaders a deal for stepping down and handing over the keys of government without further delay.
Gen. Omar Suleiman would be US choice for president
In an attempt to salvage some of the damage in Cairo, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report the Obama administration tried first to persuade Field Marshal Tantawi and key SCAF members that they would be mad to drop the Egyptian revolution before it matured and urge them to see it through.
When this did not work, US administration officials braced for the fallout.
They next began casting about for a serving or retired military figure as future president whose candidacy would be acceptable to the army and the Muslim Brotherhood.
So far they have drawn a blank.
However, a number of over-the-hill generals have come out of long retirement to offer themselves as contenders for the presidency. The most prominent are a former spy, Lt. Gen. Hossam Kemal al-Din and a former senior Egyptian Air Force commander Gen. Ahmed Shafiq, who was the last prime minister to serve under President Mubarak.
According to our intelligence sources, the candidate with the qualities and connections which best meet Washington's requirements is Gen. Omar Suleiman, a long-serving Intelligence Minister with good diplomatic credentials who became Vice President to Mubarak in his last month as president.