By Paul McGeough
April 8, 2012
If the rise of the Egyptian Islamists gives us a few laughs, the refusal by the Cairo generals to relinquish power is the stuff of tears. And the ease with which the US ditched a handy tool that might have nudged all sides in the right direction is cause for despair.
There was great sympathy last month when a bandaged and bruised Anwar al-Bulkimy pleaded from his hospital bed that he had been savagely beaten and robbed of $16,000. But within days, the newly minted Islamist MP's story was revealed as cover for the most un-Islamist of vanities - his new nose job.
And this week, the campaign of would-be president Sheikh Hazem Salah Abu Ismail was stopped in its tracks - because of his mum.
It turns out the family of this avowedly anti-American Islamist wannabe had been happily ensconced in the bosom of ''the Great Satan'' - his late mother had lived in hip Santa Monica on the Los Angeles beachfront, and her US citizenship was at odds with a constitutional bar on candidates whose parents hold any other citizenship.
Each is cause for mirth, to be sure. But as a parliamentary panel embarks on the thorny task of drafting a new Egyptian constitution, a much greater threat to the outcome of the revolution lies in the ill-varnished refusal to relinquish power by the junta that has run the country since last year's ouster of the dictator Hosni Mubarak.
A friend in the region continues to remind me that to date, all that happened in Cairo last year was a coup - an extraordinarily powerful military machine that had installed every president since the 1950s merely had eaten one of its own.
The truth of this was in an outburst last week by one of the generals.
Major-General Mahmoud Nasr warned that despite the dawn of democracy, there would be no civilian encroachment on the military's sprawling business empire. "We'll fight for our projects," he harangued local reporters. "We have sweated for 30 years and we won't leave them for anyone to destroy."
Remarkable stuff. It's not as though the general is talking about a few garrison tuckshops. Shrouded in official secrecy, the military is estimated to control between 15 and 40 per cent of gross domestic product through its food and drinking water, electronics and white goods, chemical and agricultural enterprises - even hotels and real estate.
Defending this outrage, the general boasted the military had helped ease the current economic crisis by throwing a billion dollars the government's way - "as though they had found it down the back of the sofa," a British analyst observed drily.
The junta poses as the midwife of of a new democracy but shutters non-government organisations helping to build a new civil society and shackles the media. Amid robust debate, it whines about being ''insulted'' and tells blatant lies - such as "we have not killed a single Egyptian man or woman".
The generals bang on about ''hidden powers'' trying to undo them. They round up political opponents as ''thugs'' and they object to the presence of foreign election monitors. They think they should be allowed to handpick the authors of the new constitution - in reality, they see nothing wrong with what was the documentary architecture of the dictatorship.
They show utter contempt for the fundamentals of democracy in their questioning of the vote that delivered parliamentary power to the Islamists. "Do you think that the Egyptians elected someone to threaten [their] interests and economy and security and relations with the international community," General Mukthar al-Mulla asks. "Of course not."
Assessing the generals last year, Professor Robert Springborg, of the US Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, told The New Yorker: "The real irritants of the authoritarian regime will be scaled back - the role of the state security police and the intelligence forces will be much subdued. But the profound nature of authoritarianism, as vested in the military and in the state structures that sit atop it - that's not going to change, I don't think."
But the US has decided to reinstate its $US1.5 billion ($1.46 billion) annual payment to the Egyptian military. Washington caved in to lobby pressure to put the generals back on the DC drip, not out of concern for the democratic rights of Egyptians so much as for its own political hide.
Those aid dollars come straight back to the US for the purchase of military equipment - and to keep the payments on hold was to put production lines in mothballs, which was to threaten American jobs, which was to earn voter displeasure in a US election year.
So what might the new Egypt look like? There is much talk of the emerging, post-revolutionary governments of the Arab Spring being modelled on the current, worldly mix of Islam and civilian power in Turkey. But the Egyptian generals seemingly want to go deeper into Turkish history - back to a time when the Ankara military held the power to make or break Turkish administrations that dared to cross its ''red lines''.
Another wild card to emulate is Pakistan. In Islamabad, the military has used a mixture of corruption and an insane obsession with the security threat from neighbouring India to strangle democracy when it appears in the civilian crib.
A third and more unattractive option is Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh, the royal family and the fundamentalist Wahhabi Islamic sect have an unholy alliance, in which they divide power with no pretence of democracy.
Some Egyptian secularists and liberals fear the Muslim Brotherhood may do such a deal with the Cairo generals - albeit behind a veil of democracy. I would like to see less wriggle room in the brotherhood's denials that this option might be on the table.
"The army has been ruling Egypt for more than 60 years," brotherhood No 2 Khairat al-Shater told The Washington Post in February. "The transition from military rule will take a gradual approach, though this does not sit well with those who take to the streets demanding that the military leave immediately."
For my liking, there is way too much freight in the G-word - gradual.
Paul McGeough is an Irish Australian journalist and senior foreign correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, specialising in Middle Eastern affairs
Source: The Sunday Morning Herald