CAIRO: The Muslim Brotherhood is devising a blueprint for a parliamentary democracy that would overturn Egypt’s tradition of strong heads of state, flexing its muscles after emerging as the country’s dominant political force.
The plan has emerged since the Islamist movement took the biggest share of seats in parliament, allowing it to challenge the generals ruling Egypt since the overthrow last February of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising.
For now the Brotherhood has avoided a power struggle with the army, saying that would delay a return to political stability, bolstering the widely held belief that the two have a tacit understanding so their interests do not collide.
The Brotherhood has decided not to field a candidate for the presidency but was free to deploy its formidable grassroots campaign machine unhindered in the parliamentary vote and won almost half of the seats on offer in the lower house.
It appears, for now, to accept the idea of a strong president who enjoys the army’s backing.
But under a plan outlined by senior officials in the movement, the presidency would be downgraded to a largely ceremonial role within four years and parliament would gradually take control of defense and foreign affairs from the military.
"We want a system where the prime minister liaises with parliament to pick the cabinet," said Mohamed Saad Al-Katatny, secretary-general of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The current constitution gives the president powers to pick the cabinet.
"The prime minister will have most powers of government, relating to both internal and foreign affairs. The president’s powers would be limited," he added.
The Brotherhood has said it will not be fielding one of its members as a candidate in the presidential poll and expelled a senior Brotherhood member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotoh, when he said he would run. It has not indicated if it will back any of the other candidates who have declared so far.
The Brotherhood’s intentions to rein in presidential powers could put it on a collision course with the military.
Army sources say the military will not submit to civilian control, although the generals insist they do not want to rule.
Many Egyptians suspect that the army, which provided Egypt’s rulers for six decades, wants to hang on to power from behind the scenes.
"The army will not allow anyone to meddle in its defense affairs," said an official close to the army establishment.
"The president will ensure that the army’s interests and position in the civilian state remain secure. The army in turn will back the president in managing the country’s sovereign affairs."
But retaining a role in national security issues could give the army a broad remit to intervene when it deemed necessary.
Tensions over the Brotherhood’s and army’s contrasting visions on Egypt’s future, though contained for now, augur a power struggle that will last far beyond the planned handover of power from soldiers to civilians at the end of June.
Brotherhood officials say the army retains a vital role for now in Egypt’s political and economic life, and accept that it should control defense, foreign policy and national security for the duration of the next elected president’s term.
When the president takes office in mid-year under the army’s planned handover to civilian rule, the Brotherhood wants a coalition cabinet in which it gets ministries where it can have an immediate impact on people’s lives, such as health, education and transport.
A presidential election could be held sooner than June, if plans now being discussed by an advisory council are approved by the generals. The council has been suggesting a vote as early as May.
"We want to prove to voters that our party can deliver on the needs of Egyptians," said Hussein Ibrahim, who leads the FJP’s parliamentary bloc.
The Brotherhood aims to use the coming four years to seek popular support to curtail the army’s influence over civilian affairs and place presidential powers in the hands of a prime minister chosen by parliament.
"After the political situation settles, our goal is a full parliamentary system," said El-Katatny.
Mohamed Beltagy of the FJP said that under a parliamentary system, civilian government would take control over defense, foreign affairs and the financial sector.
"These portfolios will come under the parliament’s control in a parliamentary system that we are seeking. But for now in a mixed system the portfolios are shared between the president, parliament and cabinet," he said.
For the time being, the Brotherhood is going along with the army. Fresh from electoral victory, the group’s parliamentary deputies on Tuesday gave swift backing to a retired general to lead parliament’s National Defense Committee, which is supposed to act as a democratic check on the military’s affairs.
Major General Abbas Mukheimar, 64, won the chairmanship of the committee in a unanimous vote, also supported by the hardline Salafi Islamist party Al-Nour.
In an acceptance speech, he made no mention of demands to bring the defense budget under closer parliamentary oversight.
Generals have repeatedly said the military budget should not be subject to civilian scrutiny, although they say that Egypt’s national audit office oversees the army’s business interests.
Brotherhood officials say they will avoid a head-on challenge to the army’s economic interests, which range from steel and cement making to wheat production, bottling mineral water and making consumer goods. The army also has a say in the allocation of revenues from the Suez Canal, officials say.
"The army’s role in the civilian economic establishment is bound to shrink as the civilian government stands on its own two feet," El-Katatny said, adding that the army and parliament will reach an agreement regarding control over state assets.
Until a new president arrives, the Brotherhood wants to use its parliamentary presence to pressure the army-backed interim cabinet led by Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzoury to govern in the country’s long-term interests.
"El-Ganzoury is driving the economy to the ground," said Beltagy. "We do not understand how he could allocate 200 million Egyptian pounds to passing out free school meals when the country is facing a balance of payment crisis and turning to the IMF for help."