Neighbors / Back to Square One

Cairo protesters are threatening to return to Tahrir if the military council doesn't rescind a paper that would enshrine the army with supreme power over the country.

At the Tura prison near Cairo, where many of the leaders of the previous Egyptian regime are now jailed, a young revolutionary is also being incarcerated.

Alaa Abdel-Fattah, 30, one of Egypt's veteran bloggers, was taken for interrogation at the end of October by the military government on suspicion that he had incited to, and participated in, violent demonstrations next to the television building. Abdel-Fattah, the son of two political activists - the lawyer, Ahmed Seif, and Laila Souief, a mathematics lecturer at Cairo University - was jailed before in 2006.

Tora prison in Cairo - AP - 16112011

Abdel-Fattah is insisting that civilians no longer have to be interrogated by the military authorities or brought to trial in military tribunals. That was one of the important corrections to the Egyptian constitution that the revolutionaries managed to achieve in March, and they do not plan on relinquishing it.

Abdel-Fattah is continuing to pass on information from the prison for the blog, via his wife Manal, who shares the blog with him. He says a senior activist in one of the protest movements proposed that he commit himself not to smear the name of General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister who heads the supreme military council, which effectively rules the country, in return for being released at once. He refused.

From his point of view, there is no longer anyone in Egypt who is above criticism, including the chief army commander. His detention, which is due to come to an end this week unless it is extended again by the military authorities, has turned into a rallying point for critics of the army and of a controversial document known as "the basic principles of the new constitution."

The document, written by Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silmi, is supposed to be the source of authority for a special council that will be set up in order to formulate the new constitution.

On the face of it, the document grants the people sovereignty over their fate. It promises freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but it states that Muslim religious law will be the source of authority for legislation while it defines Egypt as a civic state.

Paragraph 9 of the document gives a chilling picture of an army that answers to no one. The section states, among other things, that "the role of the army is to defend the unity and security of the country and constitutional legitimacy ... The supreme military council is the sole body responsible for any matters connected with the army, including discussion of the military budget that will be included in one paragraph in the state budget. The supreme military council is the sole body responsible for approving all the laws that relate to the army before they are applied."

Paragraph 10 talks about the establishment of a national defense council that will deal with examining "all matters that relate to state security."

These two paragraphs sparked the ire of the protest movement, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement and other veteran opposition parties.

The thought that the army, and not the parliament, would be the one to fix its budget without any public oversight, that it would decide if and when to go to war, and that it would oversee "constitutional legitimacy" - a vague term that is interpreted as being supervision of the parliament - has created a coalition threatening to bring the public back to Tahrir Square en masse on Friday to demonstrate in favor of canceling the document of principles.

It seems that the old Turkish model of an army appointed to defend the constitution appealed to Tantawi, especially since a paragraph of that kind allows the army to define security risks - in other words, it could once again define the Muslim Brotherhood as a danger that must be uprooted.

Both the deputy prime minister and the army are most attentive to the voices of the protesters and have introduced a number of changes to the problematic clauses. But protesters say they do not go far enough.

In addition to the supreme position granted to the army, the document states that the council formulating the constitution will be based on a minority of parliament members - 20 out of the 100 council members - while the remainder of its members will come from "the other parts of society" including party members, judges, university professors and representatives of the religious movements and the workers unions.

The fear is that the army will stuff the committee with people from the old regime or yes-men.

As the date for parliamentary elections approaches - they are expected to take place in two weeks' time - the fog around the future of the country after the revolution is thickening.

Will the army continue to be the supreme ruler? Who will control the new parliament, and most important, what kind of constitution will it have? These are the questions that are occupying both the veteran and the new parties, while the citizens are busy also with other profound questions such as employment, the regular supply of gas, the proper working of the trains and the lack of an economy.

Cloistered and losing

Public opinion surveys in Arab countries are not a reliable index for examining political victory or loss, but they do serve as an indication at least of the temporary zeitgeist. A survey conducted recently by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo pointed to a new trend showing former Arab League head Amr Moussa taking 60 percent of the votes in the presidential elections scheduled for the end of the year. In second place is Ahmed Shafiq, who served for a short while as Egypt's prime minister, followed by Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egyptian Intelligence. In last place? Mohammed El-Baradei.

The former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency last week came under sharp international criticism for what was seen as whitewashing the Iranian nuclear threat. But that is not the reason why he may suffer defeat in the Egyptian elections.

El-Baradei lacks public visibility. He does not go to meet the people on the street and prefers to remain cloistered at home or to meet with intellectuals or business elites. Thousands of the volunteers on his campaign have left him already, according to the survey.