One Year After Revolution, Egypt's Military Remains the Biggest Challenge to Democracy

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and resulted in new parliamentary elections. The past year was a roller coaster of emotions and drama fit for the big screen. Egypt’s latent civil society suddenly emerged and packed Tahrir Square with weeks of protest until Mubarak fell. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over control of the government, but the SCAF repeatedly balked at power transfers and is now more solidified than ever. In parliamentary elections, the Islamists dominated while the secularists – the very people who catalyzed the revolution – did poorly. A year into the revolution, a new constitution is needed and a legitimate legislature is about to take over, and yet the old military guard clings to power. If year one was about the overthrow of Mubarak, year two will be a battle against the military establishment.

Certainly, this is no easy task given Egypt’s long history of building close alliances between the military and political power. High-level Egyptian government leaders, including Presidents Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, were plucked from the military ranks. The current government is led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a former Mubarak appointee.

There are many reasons to be pessimistic about true democratic reform in Egypt as long as the military holds power. The decision by Mohamed ElBaradei to drop out of the presidential race two weeks ago indicates the strength of the military-political alliance in Egypt.

“The former regime did not fall,” said ElBaradei in a statement explaining his decision step away from the presidential race. ElBaradei’s motivations may be affected by other factors such as his low poll numbers, but his observations are indicative of the liberal-secular viewpoint that the military establishment is incompatible with democracy.

The current pattern seems unlikely to change. During the early months of the revolution, all Egyptians were united against the Mubarak regime. Young secularists and prominent Islamic groups united as one to overthrow the government. But the recent election victories for the Islamic parties may well kill momentum for reform in Egypt. The Islamists have made significant gains under the current system and can use their position to manipulate constitutional reform in their favor. The secularists, on the other hand, can only watch as they fight an uphill battle to make their voice heard. As Egyptian politics divide, political motivations also divide. It is unlikely that the Islamic and secular parties will go to the streets in the same manner as before. As a result, the SCAF is more protected than it was in prior months.

As Egypt moves forward, the next year will be just as critical as the first for democratic reformers. Egyptians will decide how much influence the military will maintain in the upper echelons of government. For secularists, the outlook is not good. Democracy has always been in a precarious state. If the SCAF continues to hold power, Egypt may reverse that gains it once celebrated with such energy and enthusiasm.

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