'We are not dictators'
Egypt's transitional military rulers have reiterated pledges to hand over power to a civilian elected government, denying that they are seeking to carve out a role in the country's political life, reports Emad Mekay
Answering criticisms that the military was intending to play a permanent role in Egypt's political life, Major General Mohamed El-Assar, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), said this week that the military's future role would be decided by the constitution to be drafted after the election of a new parliament later this year and not, as critics have charged, by the military itself.
"We have no business in deciding the content of the new constitution," said El-Assar, assistant to Egypt's defence minister, to an audience at the US Institute of Peace in Washington, DC. "The new constitution of Egypt will specify the role of the Armed Forces."
El-Assar said that the precise nature of the military's duties under the new constitution would be put to a public referendum after the forthcoming parliamentary elections, expected to be the first free and fair elections in Egypt in decades.
Voters in the referendum would "either give the military some [political] responsibility, which will be welcome, or they will not be willing to do that, and that will also be welcome," he said.
El-Assar said the military was "eager to expedite" the transitional period and to end its current rule of Egypt. His comments came during a visit to Washington, where concerns have been rising over the SCAF's refusal to allow foreign monitors to be present during the holding of the parliamentary elections and its objection to foreign funding for Egyptian NGOs.
"We are worried about foreign funding coming from outside Egypt, whether from the Europeans or from the Americans or from other Arab states," El-Assar said. "The Egyptian people are nationalists, and they are against foreign interference in our political life."
Positions of this sort by the military have caused speculation that it may be trying to exclude other agencies, guaranteeing itself a decisive role in the country's political life, something that El-Assar denied.
El-Assar said the military's position was motivated solely by a desire to protect "national sovereignty," even as concerns were rising in Egypt that the military may be reneging on pledges to protect the country's march towards fully-fledged democracy.
Over the past two weeks, the military has faced unprecedented protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in the country, citing its reluctance to hold former regime leaders and members of the police accountable for the killing of some 800 pro-democracy protesters during the 18-day revolution.
The SCAF also raised questions in Egypt after it announced that it would be forming a committee to write a set of principles "governing and guiding the drafting of the constitution."
Many of the country's political organisations and parties viewed the decision as a sign that the military wanted to shield the armed forces and its budget from future parliamentary and public scrutiny.
Another issue that has created suspicions of the military's intentions has come in the shape of the regulations issued by the SCAF to regulate the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
The measures have been widely criticised since they could allow former members of deposed former president Hosni Mubarak's former ruling National Democratic Party, who come from powerful families in rural areas, to maintain their seats in the new parliament.
Political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the liberal Wafd Party and Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, have rejected the measures for allowing the next president to appoint 10 members to parliament, a provision that Mubarak had also used to add to his supporters.
On Monday, El-Assar said that the military had pledged to respect the idea that Egypt was governed by the rule of law, and it would continue to do so.
He said that most of the issues that had been objected to were better off left to the new parliament to deal with, rather than have them dealt with by the military.
"A major change has taken place in Egypt, and the country will never return back to the past," he said. "We are not dictators. The Egyptian Armed Forces belong to the Egyptian people, and we are ready to play the role that the people of Egypt ask us to."
El-Assar's comments, while measured, may betray a split among the SCAF's members, with El-Assar leading a faction calling for deeper changes and others, led by SCAF head Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and Major General Hassan El-Roweini, head of the Central District Command, which includes Cairo, opposing them.
Both Tantawi and El-Roweini appear to want a more subdued transformation with the military's privileged position, accrued under Mubarak, maintained.
El-Roweini recently accused some protesters who had rallied for a faster pace of change of being foreign agents, saying that they were working against the national interests of the country.
He specifically mentioned the April 6 Movement, which is made up of hardened protesters who occasionally use anarchist tactics, saying that they had receiving foreign funding and training outside the country.
Tantawi opposed the corruption associated with Mubarak's rule and criticised the country's privatisation programme. However, he is now widely seen as opposing deep-rooted change.
Yet, both factions within the ruling SCAF face the same rising impatience among Egyptians as a whole.
Many ordinary people say they haven't felt the benefits of the revolution and that the military is moving too slowly towards democracy.