One Friday afternoon in the 1990s, an
Egyptian general approached journalist Johnny West in Cairo's prestigious
Gezira Sporting Club:
The general came to berate us for our coverage of Islamic group violence, which was just appearing on the radar then. Why do you make such a fuss about it? he asked. They tried to kill the prime minister last week, I replied. You think we're exaggerating? The prime minister, the general repeated, snorting with derision, Who's he? He's the man nobody notices when he gets out of the car. And Mubarak, he went on, even if they got Mubarak, you think that would make any difference?... 'Mubarak, no-Mubarak,' said the general, flipping his hands methodically as if weighing up the two worlds. 'If Mubarak disappeared, we'd just find another one.' (Karama!, 2011)
Will the Presidential elections, the first
round of which commence on 23 May, bring the generals another Mubarak?
It's possible. Ahmed Shafiq is amongst the top four candidates, but probably not – polls are unreliable – the top two. He was a minister in the Mubarak regime, and, like Mubarak, a former air force general. Amr Moussa arguably looks like the front runner, having led almost every poll conducted in the past year. He left the belly of the former administration after a 2001 spat with Mubarak, but was nonetheless appointed by him to run the Arab League. He was never a general and has a bit of distance, but not much. Most revolutionary activists still consider him felool – a 'remnant' of the old regime.
There's a pretty strong consensus about
what the generals want, and what Moussa and Shafiq
will be inclined to give them. First,
they want de facto immunity from prosecution for violence (including torture)
inflicted on civilians during their stewardship of the state, as well as under
Mubarak. Second, they want a secret
military budget, and autonomy to manage the armed forces, and their vast
network of businesses, without civilian oversight. Third, most ambitiously and most vaguely,
they want some sort of veto in high politics, i.e. the right to intercede when
security concerns (which could be represented as co-extensive with their interests)
The constitution-writing process has been stalled, and will only resume once a new President is elected. It is unclear what form the process will take. If Moussa or Shafiq take the presidency, it is likely that there will be a struggle with the Islamist-dominated parliament over the composition of the constitutional assembly, and hence the constitution itself.
But the deep grip which the generals have
on the Egyptian state is not only a function of which man (and all the
candidates are men) takes the Presidency.
When the general mentioned above spoke to Johnny West, his confidence
wasn't just about the generals' ability to find a new leader. There is a far deeper structure of power and
patronage at stake, one which can't simply be voted away.
Egyptian academic Zeinab Abul Magd, who studies the military's penetration of economic and political life has documented something of this structure, whereby key positions in the ministries and industry are held by retired generals. Should they wish to block any reform programme, they will be in a strong position to do so. Although Mohamed Morsi and Aboul Fotouh have promised to end the military's special privileges, many analysts question their real willingness to do so.
For dedicated revolutionaries, including the hunger-striking prisoners of the most recent clashes, and political observers, the question of whether a pro-military establishment President will administer the state and define the terms of Egypt's new political settlement – is the most important one. It's what will define Egypt's politics in the years to come. What is in the balance now, for Egypt's huge swathe of undecided voters, is whether they see it the same way.
This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.