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Some Egyptians Leery of U.S. Military Money’s Impact on Their Election

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Nick Schwellenbach

CAIRO — Behind the uncertainty swirling around the planned run-off election for Egypt’s new president lies serious domestic anger among some parts of its population towards Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Widely known as the SCAF, that’s the military junta that has been running the country since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last year after thousands of Egyptians protested his three-decade long rule.

Throughout Egypt’s capital, graffiti in public spaces make this clear, ranging from the common “F*ck SCAF” to more sophisticated illustrations. During a Friday protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, many protestors told me that the SCAF is one of the reasons why democracy is still struggling to take root here in this nation of over 80 million.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and one time Egyptian presidential hopeful, took to Twitter to say the interim constitution put in place by the SCAF in March 2011 gives the SCAF the power to “define the powers of the presidency” and “a veto on declaration of war,on army laws & full power on arms deals.” He said the SCAF “will become a state within a state.” He called for a constitution that makes it “clear that army is part of executive branch & subject to oversight & accountability.”

The Egyptian parliament will attempt to assemble a new group of constitution-writers Tuesday, although liberal Egyptian groups walked out on a constitutional meeting on Sunday. They argue that Islamist groups were attempting to take seats reserved for secular political parties. This walkout could throw a monkey wrench into the drafting of a new constitution, Al Jazeera reported. The previous constitutional committee was dissolved in April after a court said it did not adequately represent Egypt’s diversity, and was too dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups. The failure of this earlier group to draft a new constitution is the reason why the SCAF’s provisional constitution is still in place.

One young activist I spoke with expressed his view that SCAF’s desire to maintain the status quo — and thus to tacitly support the candidacy (officially the SCAF is neutral) of Ahmed Shafiq, who was for 33 days the last prime minister under Mubarak — is partly to protect the flow of $1.3 billion in foreign military financing from the United States. The victory of Shafiq’s rival, Mohamed Morsi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, would likely spook the U.S. government into reducing or cutting off military funding, the activist said.

However, several U.S. officials in the Obama administration and in Congress, including Republicans, have said they will engage with the Muslim Brotherhood if it wins the election. “I believe, and I’ve said here repeatedly, that the United States of America — the government of Barack Obama and members [of Congress] of both parties — we look forward to working with whoever is elected,” House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) told The Hill. Dreier was the only U.S. lawmaker to observe elections in Egypt.

U.S. foreign military financing is used to buy weapons, ammunition and other military-related supplies manufactured by U.S. companies. Sometimes, as in the case of the M1Aa Abrams tanks built by General Dynamics, there is a co-production arrangement between the U.S. company and the Egyptian government. Last fall, the U.S. government approved a deal where Egypt will buy 125 Abrams tank kits. Like Pakistan and Turkey, the Egyptian military controls a significant part of their country’s economic activity, and benefits from continuing subsidies from the U.S. government.

In March, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton waived a requirement under U.S. law that military aid to Egypt be conditioned on that nation’s adequate progress towards transitioning to civilian rule, holding free and fair elections, and is upholding freedom of expression, association, religion and due process of law. A State Department spokeswoman said, “The Secretary has also waived legislative conditions related to Egypt’s democratic transition, on the basis of America’s national security interests, allowing for the continued flow of Foreign Military Financing to Egypt.”

Besides concerns by Egyptian activists that the SCAF is not an honest broker, several non-governmental organizations and their employees in Egypt have been accused by the Egyptian government of operating illegally and engaging in prohibited political activities, which some believe is an attempt to suppress the pro-democracy infrastructure in the country; an ominous commercial was aired on Egyptian television that seemed to be targeted against foreign journalists; and there have been other developments in recent months that indicate a perhaps less than robust embrace of all the values.

Clinton’s spokeswoman acknowledged such activity. “Egypt’s transition to democracy is not yet complete, and more work remains to protect universal rights and freedoms. The Egyptian people themselves have made this clear to their own leaders,” the spokeswoman said.

Some members of Congress such as Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy  of Vermont, chair of the Senate subcommittee on foreign aid, and Republican Representative Kay Granger of Texas, chair of the comparable House panel, were critical of Clinton’s waiver. However, Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said it was in the U.S.’s interest to continue providing aid. “The United States military has a close working relationship with their Egyptian counterparts,” he told Reuters. “These relationships proved to be invaluable and have been a stabilizing influence during these troubling and uncertain times in Egypt.”

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