CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood staked its claim to the presidency and prepared a rally on Tuesday against moves to curb the powers of the office by generals whose Western allies share unease over political Islam but accuse the army of abusing hopes for democracy.
With Sunday’s presidential election result still unannounced, both Islamists and army, however, seemed ready to step back from a clash neither wants and which dismays Egyptians who yearn for an end to the political paralysis and uncertainty wrecking the economy.
The United States, which funds, arms and trains the Middle East’s biggest army to the tune of $1.3 billion a year, rebuked Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) on Monday and urged it to hand over to civilians.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Tuesday that Britain too was “concerned”, including about new military powers to detain civilians: “This is a critical moment in the process towards democratic, civilian-led government in Egypt,” he said.
“It is vital that the transition leads to legitimate, accountable and democratic governance.”
The election committee refuses to offer any results from the weekend’s presidential run-off until Thursday. The Brotherhood again offered a detailed national count giving its candidate, Mohamed Morsy, a comfortable win by 52 percent to 48 over former general Ahmed Shafik, Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Shafik’s camp shot back that they have a 1-point lead. But army and election committee sources told Reuters the count does show Morsy winning. The military seems to be preparing for that - not least by dissolving the Islamist-led parliament last week and issuing a decree as polls closed that will preserve much of its own power well beyond a July 1 deadline for civilian rule.
The young urban activists who launched the uprising against Mubarak in January last year, already disappointed the election came down to an all too familiar choice between army and Islam, called a rally at Cairo’s Tahrir Square for Tuesday evening to protest at the military legal manoeuvres of the past week.
The Brotherhood is also busing in supporters to the square.
The generals, who pushed Mubarak aside last year to save their own vast and deep-rooted social and economic privileges from the Arab Spring revolution on the streets, are accused of abusing the trust placed by protesters in an institution they had credited with averting a much bloodier civil conflict.
“The new decree is a way for the military council to force itself as guardian on the Egyptian people and their great revolution,” a coalition of groups called the Revolutionary Youth Union said. “The decree confirms the continuity of the military council in power and not handing over to an elected president as was promised from the start of the revolution.”
Khaled Ali, an activist lawyer who was among candidates knocked out in the first round of presidential voting last month, said SCAF must not be allowed to take the legislative powers of the dissolved parliament, as it has decreed, nor to form a constitutional drafting panel, as it says it may.
“Every patriot must stand up in the face of the attempt to appropriate these rights,” Ali said in a statement.
Hussein Ibrahim, a senior Brotherhood member of the dissolved parliament, told Reuters the SCAF order would prolong military rule: “We’re back at square one.
“After Egyptians waited for the election of a new president to end the transitional period, we discovered that by electing a new president we are restarting the transitional period.”
At a news conference, a spokesman for the Brotherhood played down talk of head-on conflict with an army with which the movement has lately developed a cautious working relationship:
“Why do we rush to the word ‘confrontation’?” said Yasser Ali. “We do not seek any confrontation with anyone. No one in Egypt wants confrontation ... There has to be dialogue between national forces, and the people alone must decide their fate.”
The secretive SCAF has appeared to make up rules as it goes along for what is supposed to be progress toward democracy, giving it considerable flexibility in interpreting any rules.
With Egypt’s economy, notably its tourist trade, suffering badly, the country is looking for financing from the IMF. For the generals to maintain influence but avoid taking all the blame for economic troubles, they have an interest in sharing at least some responsibility with civilian politicians.
Speaking publicly on Monday, generals on SCAF insisted they were still committed to a full handover of power and blamed squabbling politicians for the failure to draft a constitution.
One noted that the new president was free to appoint his own government, which could then draft laws that the head of state could pass into law. But the process will involve SCAF, in its role as legislator, able to amend or blocks laws as it sees fit.
Another general pointed out it was not SCAF but the constitutional court - staffed by judges from the old regime - which annulled results of January’s parliamentary election.
In another potentially explosive judicial saga on Tuesday, a court adjourned until September one of several civil cases that challenge the Brotherhood’s very right to exist or engage in politics, using old laws aimed specifically at the Islamists.
Egyptian democracy was relatively low among U.S. priorities during the 30-odd years Washington was funnelling aid and arms to a Cold War ally that led Arab peace moves with Israel in 1979 and was later fighting a common enemy in militant Islam.
But since Egyptians rose up to end six decades of military rule, U.S. leaders have pledged to support them, even if that means accepting a role for the Brotherhood, a long-suppressed movement that wants Islamic law and spawned offshoots such as the militant Palestinian Hamas movement across the Middle East.
“We are deeply concerned about the new amendments to the constitutional declaration, including the timing of their announcement as polls were closing,” a Pentagon spokesman said.
“We believe Egypt’s transition must continue and that Egypt is made stronger and more stable by a successful transition to democracy,” spokesman George Little said. “We support the Egyptian people in their expectation that the (SCAF) will transfer full power to a democratically elected civilian government, as the SCAF previously announced.”
Washington may have limited room for leverage on Tantawi, a familiar figure to U.S. commanders after his 20 years as Mubarak’s defence minister. The Pentagon said it wanted such close relations to continue and there was no mention of possible sanctions. “We’re going to monitor events closely,” he said.
Israel fears growing hostility in Cairo and said on Monday an Israeli and two militants were killed in an attack on its Sinai desert border where the Jewish state is building a fence.
But it also knows that U.S. military aid to Egypt would be jeopardised if the country were to end its peace with Israel.
“Any rise of an Islamic regime, whose ideology is quite clear, quite obvious, is worrisome,” Israeli Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday. “But on the other hand, Egypt today is dependent to a large extent on the peace agreement.
“I don’t see the security establishment nor any Egyptian regime, including the Muslim candidate, renouncing our peace agreement in the foreseeable future.”
Morsy, though allied with figures who call for Israel’s destruction, has said he would respect the peace treaty.