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Egyptian identity on table

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TEL AVIV -- Less than two months before the post-Mubarak presidential elections in Egypt, both the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood are nearing a confrontation over two main points.

The first is the identity of Egypt -- is it totally Islamist, or semi-secular? The second is the role of the military in Egypt's political system.

The conflict surfaced over the weekend when the 100-member body the Brotherhood chose to write a new constitution insisted on defining Egypt as "Islamist" and that legislation be based on the Qur'an.

Should these assertions prevail, they would fundamentally change Egypt's identity and would entail deep changes in the country's legislation.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has ruled Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last February, is trying to moderate the Brotherhood's position, but to no avail. The army maintains the new constitution should take into account the Christian-Copt minority and the large numbers of secular Egyptians.

This, however, is not the full picture. A debate is developing behind the scenes about the role of the military in post-Mubarak Egypt.

The Supreme Council led by Marshal Hussein Tantawi has assured the stability of the country and the functioning of its institutions throughout a period of great uncertainty. The council has maintained the close relationship with the U.S. and the American military and a good, but discreet, relationship with Israel. It has asserted influence over Hamas in the Gaza Strip and, except for two serious incidents, the Egyptian army has been able to maintain the ceasefire along the Sinai border.

There was even discreet, but nonetheless important, co-operation between the intelligence communities of both countries.

The Muslim Brotherhood, through its political wing, the Freedom and Justice party, did not challenge the military. They wanted to consolidate their base at home before engaging in foreign affairs and diplomacy.

Over the past weekend, however, there came the first hint of a possible change in the Brotherhood's position. Despite previous statements, the Brotherhood said it was considering the nomination of one of its members as a presidential candidate. This came only days after one of the survivors of the Mubarak era, Gen. Omar Suleiman, announced his intention to run for president. Suleiman, the former chief of Egypt's intelligence, is well-known in the U.S. and Israel and he carried out many delicate missions on behalf of Mubarak. Yet, when the time came for him to decide between his loyalty to Mubarak and the good of his county, he stepped aside and withdrew to private life.

Even now, it is not at all certain that Suleiman wants to become Egypt's first president in the Second Republic. But that was enough to raise a political storm. Many in the Brotherhood are prepared to support the candidacy of Amr Mussa, a former foreign minister under Sadat and until recently the Arab League's secretary general.

But once Omar Suleiman's candidacy was announced, the Muslim Brotherhood launched an all-out attack against the military-appointed government. They charged that the performance of Prime Minister Kamal el-Ghanzouri was a "shame" and they rejected the military request for immunity from persecution for atrocities committed right after Mubarak's downfall.

It could well be that this whole "exercise" of the immunity was only a preamble to the real confrontation between the Brotherhood and the military over its economic empire. The Brotherhood wants the military's industry complex to be placed under parliament's control. The military is strongly opposed. The military also is opposed to the Brotherhood's demand that the $1.5 billion military aid that Egypt receives from the U.S. be brought under parliamentary supervision, a demand Tantawi rejects.

Pending resolution of these demands, we will probably witness a growing tension between the military and the Brotherhood. Or, as it often happens in Arab politics, both sides retreat to more moderate "real politics."

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 27, 2012 A11

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.


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