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Democracy or more of the same for Egypt under the military council

Following the end of the Mubarak era, Egypt's caretaker military council has called for "national solidarity" and promised constitutional amendments. But that is a concept left wide open to interpretation.

A man clears up the street

After the celebrations protesters say their work is not done

When Egypt's long-standing president, Hosni Mubarak, suddenly stepped down last Friday, the "what happens next?" question was all but inaudible beneath the cacophonous shouts of liberty and victory. Now that the excitement has paled, however, attention has shifted to the supreme council of the armed forces, and the legitimacy of its stated intention of bringing democracy to the country.

In an effort to show that it means business and that it is meeting the protesters' demands, the military council has ordered a committee tasked with amending the constitution to finish its work within 10 days. A retired judge, Tareq al-Bishry, has been appointed head of the committee. The panel is to examine which constitutional clauses require changing in order to "guarantee the fairness and democratic nature of elections for the presidency, the parliament and the shura council."

Soldiers in red berets seen from behind

How fair will the Egyptian military play?

Carry on striking

But activist and blogger, Alah Seif told Deutsche Welle that a let-up in nationwide strike action was not imminent and that the army has to tread carefully around that issue.

"So far the decisions made by the military council have been consistent with our demands, even if they have been made unilaterally," he said. "But when the army threatens to arrest people for striking, that is going to add to the mistrust and prove that the army does not understand human rights."

Bus driver hold up his meagre pay cheque

Many Egyptians, like this bus driver, are unhappy with poor levels of pay

He says the military is used to giving orders and needs to learn how to deal with civilians, but stresses that there is no shortage of skepticism among the population as to whether or not the new custodians will deliver on their promise of free elections in six months.

"The army has been in power in some way or another since the republic was formed, and there is widespread suspicion that they might remain in power," he said. "Ultimately I cannot judge the intention of the supreme council, it is a black box."

The same old Egypt

In her assessment, Anette Büchs, Egypt expert with the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (GIGA) told Deutsche Welle that although there was bound to be doubt about the army's intentions, the military might ultimately be forced to follow through on its promises.

"If you look at it in terms of international pressure, and the fact that people want to see a real transition to democracy, maybe the army has no other choice," she said, adding that the Egyptian people have the advantage of an active judiciary which has been fighting for more freedom for a long time.

But in a statement, the political forecaster Stratfor said that "nothing much" had really happened yet in Egypt and that the regime was still being controlled by old generals.

"The week began with an old soldier running Egypt. It ended with different soldiers running Egypt with even more formal power than Mubarak."

Lack of transparency

Egyptians protesting

Will there be more of the same?

Those soldiers, most notably Muhammad Tantawy, who is now the effective interim head of state, and chief of staff Sami Enan, have been much analyzed in the Western media. The former is invariably dubbed a Mubarak crony and puppet, while his colleague steals the limelight as the military man who both the US and the Egyptian public like to like. Alah Seif, however, said such reports were a long way off the mark.

"Maybe Sami Enan is popular among the military, I don't know about that, but I know that on the street, he is not well known, so it is a fallacy to think he is popular," Seif said. "The problem is that the army has not been very public so we don't know the people on the council very well."

Without the kind of transparency which would allow ordinary Egyptians to get a hold on the power dynamic within the council, Seif says it is imperative that demonstrators do not give up their fight half way through. What that means in practical terms is getting the population involved in the interim process by continuing to strike, by joining in mass Friday marches, and by adopting a hands-on approach to sifting corrupt employees out of the workplace.

"People are doing this on their own now," Seif said. "Not just in government departments but in institutions and universities, they are revolting and are sacking boards and reelecting them from scratch."

It is this kind of bottom-up action which he says shows the military that they are the ones who ought to be afraid of the people and not the other way around.

"We didn't have a revolution so we could lose our rights again," he said. "We will continue to send a strong message that we won't accept anything less than democracy and the complete eradication of corruption."

Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge

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