CAIRO (Reuters) - Near the rock-strewn scene of a bloody anti-army protest, Islamist, liberal and other politicians sat with ruling generals this month to haggle over Egypt’s future after its first presidential vote since Hosni Mubarak’s fall.
At stake in the Defense Ministry meeting, held just hours after 11 people were killed in another flare-up marring Egypt’s transition to democracy, was who would write a new constitution and what powers would Mubarak’s successor have.
No clarity has emerged.
When voting starts on May 23 and 24 in a presidential race that broadly pits Islamists against men who at one time or another served under Mubarak, Egyptians still won’t know the next head of state’s permanent job description.
“It’s a poker game,” said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians party, describing the talks he attended on May 2 between political party leaders and military ruler Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who is also defense minister.
The closed-door bargaining is a far cry from the adrenalin-fuelled street protests that toppled Mubarak in just 18 days.
Fifteen months later, the revolt that gripped the world and inspired Arabs has stumbled under the transition managed by the generals who took charge when Mubarak, a former air force commander, was forced out.
Sporadic street protests still flare, but change is now being dictated by a tortuous tug-of-war between the civilian politicians and the army, a pillar of Mubarak’s rule which is set to remain a major power broker long after it formally hands over to a new president by July 1.
Faces of the 13 presidential candidates beam down from banners and posters across the nation of 82 million. They promise change. But the election will not mean a swift end to turbulence, even though it will add a new political player.
“For at least the first year there will be a lot of muddling through. As long as the roles aren’t defined you are going to see a struggle for power among the different forces,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center.
“There is going to be lot of brinkmanship. There are going to be a lot of protests. There is going to be some violence.”
The grinding pace has left liberal-minded activists who inspired the revolt fuming at the unfinished work of dismantling Mubarak’s legacy. Islamists grumble that their sweeping parliamentary election mandate is being ignored. Many Egyptians are simply tired of the turmoil that has hammered the economy.
“The revolution hasn’t failed ... But it hasn’t been completed yet. God willing, we will complete it. Maybe it will take five years,” said Ahmed Gaber, 23, who was protesting against the army outside the Defense Ministry this month.
‘HISTORY IN THE MAKING’
Yet the Egyptians are enjoying a kind of politics unthinkable in Mubarak’s day. Last week, the two presidential front-runners, former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abol Fotouh, faced off in an unprecedented U.S.-style presidential debate.
“History in the making. Egyptians head home to watch their first-ever presidential debate. Change has come,” wrote Minoush Abdel-Meguid on Twitter, shortly before the marathon four-hour show began on Thursday evening and ended well after midnight.
The uprising has also reshaped Egypt’s ties with the region and the West. The United States now openly talks to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, groups it long spurned.
Israel watches warily as presidential candidates criticize - but still promise to respect - the peace treaty signed with Egypt in 1979. Mubarak’s Gulf allies, meanwhile, fret that popular unrest will spill over to their monarchies.
Yet the foundations of the state that shored up Mubarak’s rule remain firmly intact. The military establishment boasts how it sided with the people to change the man at the top, but there is no talk of a deeper institutional sweep-out. Tantawi was Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years. Mubarak’s Interior Ministry and its hated police force remains unreformed.
“We respect the military establishment but the Brotherhood will not allow it to wield political influence in the new state,” said Essam el-Erian, a leader of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which now dominates parliament.
The 84-year-old Brotherhood, seeking to capitalize on its political gains, has already lost one skirmish with the army when the FJP called for the military-appointed cabinet to be sacked. Instead, there was a minor reshuffle and no FJP members were included in the new line-up.
“Dismantling the army’s hold on the civil state is a gradual process because any quick decision will lead to a civilian-military confrontation,” Erian said.
Mahmoud Ghozlan of the Brotherhood’s executive bureau said it could take more than 10 years to push back the army.
Western diplomats also speak of a long haul to disentangle the military from politics and create an army that answers to civilian leaders. Army officers privately say it will take years to achieve the revolution’s goals. They insist the army wants to stay out of politics but remains ready to help when called.
Yet these are uncertain times for the generals. Since the “Free Officers” of Gamal Abel Nasser toppled the king in 1952, the man in charge of Egypt has always been a military commander.
The army kept its distance from politics, confident the president was guarding its interests. In the meantime, the military gained privileges and built up sprawling business interests ranging from a military industrial complex to factories bottling water, operating almost as a parallel state.
The main candidates have said the army’s status will change. Amr Moussa, 75, who once served as Mubarak’s foreign minister, says the president, not the army, will be “the boss”. Abol Fotouh, 60, and the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Mursi, 60, insist the army will not be above the constitution.
Among the leading candidates, only Ahmed Shafiq was a senior military officer. Like Mubarak, he previously headed the air force and was also the former president’s last prime minister.
In an interview with Reuters in February, the 70-year-old Shafiq said bluntly: “Civilians may be in a hurry and they think that as soon as the new president is elected he will act freely of the military. No, this will not be the case.”
Egypt’s new president is likely to find pressing problems on the domestic front to distract him from taking on the army. One urgent task will be reviving an economy on the ropes after investors and tourists packed up.
But the military’s role will start shifting, even if slowly.
“Relatively speaking there is going to be a change, just like there was in Turkey. Turkey provides a model on how these changes happen. They seem minimal and gradual at first but they accumulate over time,” said Brookings’ Hamid.
In Turkey, the power of the army that was for decades the defender of the secular state has been gradually rolled back, mostly by the ruling AK Party, which has Islamist roots.
It is a worrying comparison for Egypt’s military. Turkey’s generals and senior officers are being hauled before the courts for their role in bringing down a government in the late 1990s.
Presidential candidates suggest they don’t want to put military leaders in the dock, but the army has attracted public criticism over its handling of protests. Scenes of soldiers beating demonstrators have marred its reputation, even if many Egyptians see the army as a vital safeguard against chaos.
Generals say most people still back them. “Ask the ordinary Egyptian to what extent he is harmed by these protests that have no aim except to delay people’s daily lives,” General Hassan Roweny told Reuters near the Defense Ministry sit-in.
The generals want to secure immunity from prosecution, guard their privileges and keep a guiding hand on defense and foreign policy, particularly on Israel as the peace deal brings $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid, analysts and diplomats say.
One way the army will keep a grip will be through a proposed National Security Council, widely endorsed by candidates. This would include senior ministers, speakers of parliament and army commanders. Officers privately say it would give them a broad say on issues ranging from waging war to bread shortages.
The army also wants to keep its budget protected from deep public scrutiny in parliament.
How far and fast the army is pushed back may depend on how much of a united front Egypt’s feuding political parties build.
For now, the army has been hosting the cross-party talks to resolve a row over the make-up of an assembly that was to write the new constitution. Liberals walked out of the assembly picked by parliament, saying it had too many Islamists.
“The army is a key player and will continue to be one,” said Ziad Bahaa-Eldin of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.
“But we also need to develop our capacity to work as political parties inside parliament and outside parliament irrespective of whether the army is sitting around the table or not.”
Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon