Tuesday June 19, 2012

CAIRO -- Islamist candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed a hollow victory Monday in Egypt’s presidential vote just hours after the country’s military rulers stripped the office of its most important powers.

The power grab by the ruling generals delivered another major blow to hopes for a democratic transition born out of last year’s uprising that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

The generals, who deny having effectively staged a coup and rendering the elected president a mere figurehead, will maintain authority over the crafting of laws and the drafting of a new constitution. Civilian oversight of their budget and other affairs will be strictly off-limits.

If Morsi’s victory is confirmed in the official result expected on Thursday, it would be the first victory of an Islamist as head of state in the stunning wave of pro-democracy uprisings that swept the Middle East the past year. But the military’s moves to retain power sharpen the possibility of confrontation and more of the turmoil that has beset Egypt since Mubarak’s overthrow.

"The military may partially exit from power after a new round of tough negotiations with the Islamist and the secular opposition on safeguarding its interests," said Azzedine Layachi, a Middle East expert from St. John’s University in New York. "However, and no matter what, the military will continue to play a dominant role in Egyptian politics. The question for now is whether they will continue to do so directly for the coming years or indirectly behind the fagade of a civilian rule."

In Washington, Pentagon press secretary George Little said the U.S. was troubled by the timing of the military leaders’ announcement and would urge them "to relinquish power to civilian-elected authorities and to respect the universal rights of the Egyptian people and the rule of law."

"This is a critical moment in Egypt, and the world is watching closely," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters. "We are particularly concerned by decisions that appear to prolong the military’s hold on power."

The Obama administration has sought to safeguard its interests while championing change in Egypt. Mubarak made Cairo a bulwark of American influence in the Middle East before being pushed from power in February 2011.

The new measures came just days after a court packed with judges appointed by Mubarak dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament, and the military assumed broad authority to arrest civilians -- and less than two weeks from the date the rulers set for a transfer of power back to civilians.

The generals issued a "constitutional declaration" late Sunday before even a single ballot was counted at the end of the second and final day of a presidential runoff that pitted Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer, against Ahmed Shafiq, Mu barak’s last prime minister.

The new president, according to the document, will not be able to declare war or order troops out on the streets in case of domestic unrest without the prior consent of the military. He will also have no say in the affairs of the military, whose top brass will exclusively exercise the right to appoint commanders and extend their service.