- Sharif Abdel KouddousDemocracy Now! correspondent reporting from Cairo
Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports from Egypt on the country’s growing political crisis. Former President Hosni Mubarak is on life support, both candidates claim to have won last weekend’s election, and the ruling military council has seized greater power. Official presidential election results are not expected to be announced until Thursday. Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested Tuesday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a rally called by the Muslim Brotherhood, expressing outrage over the army’s decree late Sunday that it would seize all legislative powers. “Right now the country has no constitution, no parliament, and an incoming president that will have scant power,” Kouddous says. “So, really, the military council is controlling the key branches of state. … [It’s] perhaps a fitting end to this nonsensical transition that we’ve seen over the last 16 months.” [includes rush transcript]
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We begin today’s show on the political crisis in Egypt. Former President Hosni Mubarak has been moved from prison to an army hospital in Cairo where he is reportedly unconscious and on life support. The military strongman ruled the country for 30 years until he was toppled from power during last year’s uprising. Earlier this month, he was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of protesters. Senior officers have given various accounts of the 84-year-old Mubarak’s condition, but they denied reports he was, quote, “clinically dead,” as briefly reported by the state news agency.
The news comes amid high tension over the results from last weekend’s presidential vote that pitted Mubarak’s former prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, against Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Official results are not expected to be announced until Thursday, but both sides have already claimed victory.
Meanwhile, Egyptians showed little sympathy to news about Mubarak’s deteriorating health.
ADEL MORAD: [translated] We do not need anything from him or his family. We want them to leave us alone, because we’ve gotten tired of them. We are looking forward for good people to rule us. We do not need anything from his family. We want to live. We need security. We need a decent life. We need freedom. And we need to retrieve our dignity.
AMY GOODMAN: Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested Tuesday night in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in a rally called by the Muslim Brotherhood. Others protested outside Egypt’s parliament. They expressed outrage over the army’s decree late Sunday that it would seize all legislative powers. Some have described the move as a “military coup.” This is Egyptian parliament member, Mhamed Uof.
MHAMED UOF: [translated] We should stream into the streets. I’m calling on all free people from the army, police, all of the state associations, and all of Egyptians who are brave and free people, to come to Tahrir Square to protest. Hosni Mubarak stepped down after only 18 days. But the military council will leave power only during nine days. We will hinder traffic, close streets. We will do whatever it takes to achieve our demands. It is going to be a civil, peaceful disobedience.
AMY GOODMAN: For more on the situation in Egypt, we go to Cairo, where we’re joined by Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Sharif, can you tell us what’s happening, from what’s happening to Mubarak right now, reported—reportedly in a coma, to what’s happening in the streets, the reports of a military coup?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, this news of Mubarak’s health came in late last night, the state news agency, as you reported, saying that he was clinically dead. This caused, of course, a huge flurry in the media. But quickly, those reports were denied by his lawyer, senior members of the military council, who said he wasn’t clinically dead, that he had suffered a stroke or he had suffered some kind of a heart attack, his heart had stopped. There’s varying reports. What we do know is that he was transferred out of the prison where he’s been held since he received his life sentence earlier this month. He’s now in a military hospital. The news has been, honestly, treated with some skepticism amongst the Egyptian public here. I mean, Mubarak’s health and reports of his death have been swirling in the media since the beginning of this revolution, especially since he was taken into custody last year. We keep hearing rumors that he died. And also, especially when he was moved to prison earlier this month, immediately there were rumors that he had collapsed, that he was having trouble breathing. But now he’s moved out of the Tora prison. Some think that this was all just to get him out of the prison and back into a hospital. So, that’s where—that’s where that stands right now.
But it comes at a very, very sensitive time. Tomorrow we’re going to learn who the winner of Egypt’s first competitive—arguably competitive—presidential election will be. Both sides have claimed victory in the poll. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi has said that they won with 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent of Ahmed Shafik. They’ve backed this up with very detailed documents from each polling station around the country, which are stamped. And their tally seems to coincide with most independent reports and from most local media outlets. The Shafik campaign has denied that he lost, saying instead that their candidate won. But we’ll find out for sure tomorrow.
Over and above that is that what exactly—what powers will this president have, and that really this handover of power that was scheduled for June 30th has really been rendered meaningless by a sweeping set of amendments to the constitutional declaration that has been governing the country since March of 2011. These amendments were issued unilaterally by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and made public minutes after polls closed on Sunday evening. And really, they entrench the military’s power, and they strip the incoming president of any significant authority. And, of course, we have to remember that these amendments come just three days after the country’s top court, the Supreme Constitutional Court, dissolved the popularly elected parliament and also after a decree by the Ministry of Justice that really returns elements of martial law to Egypt and allows the military widespread powers of arrest and detention of civilians.
So, most prominently, perhaps, of these constitutional amendments is that it removes the president’s role as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It gives that to the head of the Supreme Council, who is Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and effectively gives the military complete control over its own affairs. So what this does, really, is creates the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces as a fourth branch of state that’s constitutionally separate from the presidency, the parliament and the judiciary. It also—the amendments also shield the military from any kind of public oversight whatsoever, any kind of civilian oversight.
They also—the amendments also allow the military to act as parliament. In the absence of a sitting parliament, they’re allowed to issue laws by decree. They also tighten their grip on the writing of the country’s constitution. So they have an effective veto over any clause that they might disapprove of, and they can also actually go further and dissolve the current assembly, that was formed by parliament just two days before it was dissolved, and on very vague grounds, if it encounters what’s called an obstacle, they’re allowed to dissolve that body and handpick their own hundred-member body that will draft this country’s permanent constitution. And the military has made clear throughout the transitional period—we only need to look back to last fall to something called the Selmi Document to know exactly what they’re looking for, what kind of protections they’re looking for in the constitution, and that’s really to enshrine their political and economic privileges in the constitution. So, and also, to add insult to injury, they recently—the head of the advisory council to the military council, a man named Sameh Ashour, said that the incoming president may only serve for an interim period, until a new constitution is written.
Further above that, the Tantawi—the military council announced a national defense council that will be formed, of 17 members, which will be headed by the incoming president. But of those 17 members, 11 of them are senior military commanders, and decisions will be made by a simple majority vote. So, really, all of these sweeping steps have really stripped the incoming president of any significant authority, in a last-minute power grab, and really is perhaps a fitting end to this nonsensical transition that we’ve seen over the last 16 months. Right now the country has no constitution, no parliament, and a president without—an incoming president that will have scant power. So, really, the military council is controlling the key branches of state.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Sharif, the powers you describe are, as you said, quite sweeping. Is there any way in which the incoming president can either—in any sense, either alter or overturn some of these amendments, these constitutional amendments?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the Muslim Brotherhood, who is widely expected to win the presidency tomorrow, has soundly rejected these amendments. They have also rejected the Supreme Court’s ruling to dissolve parliament. The army deployed troops around the parliament building to prevent MPs from entering the building over the weekend. We saw a massive protest yesterday that was called primarily by the Muslim Brotherhood but also other forces, also political forces, but including revolutionary forces like the April 6 Youth Movement. The Revolutionary Socialists were there, as well. But really, the square was packed by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who rejected these amendments. And I think it was also a show of force to act as a warning, in case Ahmed Shafik is named as president, that they might return to street protests.
From a legal perspective, whether these amendments can be overturned, it’s anybody’s guess. I mean, the Supreme Council has been changing the rules as it goes along and has issued laws by decree. There’s no—there’s no rules to the game right now. So, I’m sure negotiations are probably underway, but right now the military council is acting with a lot of hubris and really—and also in what appears to be desperation, which may be encouraging in a way, that they fear that their power may be slipping. But right now, they hold all the cards in terms of the levers of power of the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, what role does the United States play in all of this?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the State Department and the Pentagon voiced concern over these amendments. We heard State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland expressing concern, as did the Pentagon. But as with so much in U.S. policy, especially towards Egypt, words rarely match the actions. And so, U.S. policy towards Egypt has changed very little since before the revolution.
Washington, of course, backed the Mubarak regime with annual military aid of $1.3 billion for decades. We’ve seen that aid continue. Congress last year, in the wake of the revolution, added a provision to the aid that had this—the State Department had to certify that the military, the ruling military council, was doing a transition to civilian democracy. The Obama administration issued a national security waiver that overrode that provision to continue the aid to Egypt, despite widespread human rights abuses by the army and security forces. It came in the wake of the NGO crisis, where U.S.-funded NGOs were raided and closed down, and the son of the transportation minister, Sam LaHood, was not allowed to travel or leave the country.
So, we’ve seen this continuation of U.S. policy where issues regarding regional concerns with Israel and so forth have trumped human rights concerns. But many people here on the ground are asking for the U.S. to finally take a stand and perhaps have its actual policy match its words and have a significant cutoff of aid, given what’s happened with this—what many are calling a constitutional coup by the military council.
AMY GOODMAN: Also, the number of people who came out to vote in this election this past weekend, can you talk about the boycott movement? I mean, the Egyptian elections are looking a little like the U.S. elections in how few people came out to vote.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Amy, you know, Egyptians have gone to the polls three times in this transition, and each time they go, their vote has been rendered meaningless. They went in March 2011, voted on nine amendments to the constitution, and that was supplanted by a constitutional declaration issued unilaterally by the military council just a few days later that altered over 60 articles to the constitution. Then they went to the polls last fall, and they voted with a much lower turnout, and they voted for parliament. That parliament has now been dissolved, and so those elections were rendered worthless. And now they’ve gone to the polls again, and with again a lower turnout—or we’re actually not sure what the turnout is, to be clear, in this round, but it’s close to about 50 percent, some have predicted. And we’ve again seen that their vote has been rendered somewhat meaningless, because the person that they voted for has been stripped of all power.
So, there has been a growing movement to boycotts, a growing movement to spoil ballots, to say that there’s a third choice, we don’t have to pick between the two candidates that were represented. And I don’t know. I mean, if Egyptians find that there’s—that their vote means nothing, then perhaps they’ll seek other avenues of change. But, you know, the runoff election that we saw—really, the enthusiasm of the streets—I traveled around Cairo and went to the Delta, as well, to different polling stations, was—the enthusiasm was very low. You didn’t see the ubiquitous, you know, person holding up their ink-stained finger and proudly showing that they voted, because of this—a lot of confusion and apathy that has been fostered by this very nonsensical transition, as well as the candidates themselves—on one side, Ahmed Shafik, who’s really a stalwart of the Mubarak regime and represents the authoritarianism of that state, and on the other, the Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Islamist group that, in many ways, has been seen as abandoning the revolution in pursuit of its own interests. So it was really a kind of a low-energy turnout.
We’ll have to wait for the numbers tomorrow. But everyone is going to be glued tomorrow to this announcement by the Presidential Elections Commission. It’s a very close vote, regardless, by all counts, somewhere between 52 to 48 or 51 to 49. And the Presidential Election Commission’s decision are unappealable. So, if they—so everyone will be tuned in tomorrow to find out who the incoming president is, even though his powers have been severely curtailed.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Sharif is joining us from overlooking Tahrir Square in Cairo, in Egypt, Democracy Now! senior correspondent.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Julian Assange has taken refuge in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. He is seeking political asylum. The British police have issued an arrest warrant for him. We’ll speak with Assange’s lawyer, Michael Ratner. Stay with us.