Guided by optimism: A difficult transition promises a path to much-needed stability

 

The last 18 months have carried Egypt through a radical political transformation. President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades, stepped down amid nationwide protests. Mubarak’s former ruling party, the National Democratic Party, has been dissolved, and for the first time in history, Egyptians participated in fair and free elections.

In other ways, however, there is much continuity with the past. Much of the bureaucracy from the previous regime remains in place, and the military still maintains significant influence. Many Egyptians are concerned over the enduring problems of inflation and poverty, but optimism is certainly on the rise. Given such a mixed picture, Egyptians have recognised that the road to a true democracy will be long and bumpy. It is clear, however, that the overhaul that began on January 25, 2011 has already made gains to ensuring greater popular representation and improving accountability in the republic.

TRANSITION START: When Mubarak resigned on February 11, 2011, Egyptians looked to the future with a sense of hope. However, the trials that accompany political transition wore out the euphoria of Tahrir Square, giving way to partisanship, sporadic violence and cynicism that shaped the political debate in the months that followed.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed control of the country in the wake of Mubarak’s departure. Early on, the military won favour in the eyes of the public by releasing hundreds of political prisoners, announcing that it would not nominate a candidate for president and creating a committee of constitutional scholars to draw up a roadmap for the transition. But as the pace of reform slowed, the head military body, composed of 20 senior officers, alternated between being responsive to and dismissive of popular demands. At the same time, SCAF began seeking extra-constitutional privileges and safeguards to protect its economic interests as a new political order began to take shape.

One of SCAF’s initial moves was to propose nine amendments to the constitution to regulate the transition to a democratic order. Among the many issues, opponents criticised the SCAF policies for allowing parliamentary elections to precede the drafting of a new constitution. However, Egypt’s most organised political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, favoured the speedy elections proposed by the military. The amendments were put to a national referendum in March 2011 and approved by 77% of voters with turnout of around 41.2%.

DIFFERENT VIEWS: Within six weeks of Mubarak’s resignation, the differences between the military, Islamist movements and liberal activists were weighing heavily on the public debate. The groups diverged regarding priorities and timetables for reform, and the unity that had characterised Egypt’s uprising gave way to bitter and divided politics.

This came to a head in November 2011 when SCAF announced that it intended to preserve broad powers once a new government and constitution were in place. In addition to retaining oversight of national security, SCAF said it would assume broadly defined responsibilities for maintaining unity and preserving the constitution, and that the budget to do so would remain confidential. Five days of rioting ensued, and anti-SCAF sentiment mounted. In response to the uproar, the presidential elections, intended as a formal handover of power, were scheduled for June 2012, several months earlier than planned.

FIRST CHOICE: Despite the intermittent unrest, parliamentary elections began in late November 2011. The vote brought a sweeping victory for two Islamist parties, the Muslim Brotherhood’s newly formed Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafist Al Nour Party, in both the upper and lower houses. Election observers concluded that the elections were, by and large, free.

However, the legislative elections did not, as many had hoped, bring calm to Egypt. Incidents continued to occur that underlined an ongoing sense of volatility, including a riot at a football match in Port Said on February 1, 2012 and the outbreak, just one week later, of a dispute over non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that resulted in the arrest of 43 workers, 27 of which were foreign nationals.

A NEW DRAFT: In March 2010 parliament formed a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution to then be put to a national referendum. The FJP, dominant in parliament, selected many of its own party members to serve on the assembly. Liberal groups accused the FJP of attempting to populate the assembly with Islamists to write a constitution based on Islamic law. Women, minorities and the young were only modestly represented in the assembly.

Khaled Sewelam, director of research and publications at the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, explained the differing sides. “The Muslim Brotherhood argued that they represent the people, so they can choose, but the people chose the FJP for parliament, not to draft the constitution.” There was also the added problem of a body comprised of parliamentarians being authorised to determine the powers of parliamentarians.

In protest, 30 members of the assembly – including representatives from the Coptic Church and Al Azhar University – chose to boycott the assembly, rendering it defunct. In April an administrative court agreed with the assembly’s opponents and ordered that a new body be formed. A compromise was reached in early June when parliament created a second assembly, this time with 39 members from 10 different political parties and 61 independents.

However, as the new assembly prepared to meet, the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the law regulating the previous parliamentary elections had been unconstitutional, throwing the assembly’s legitimacy into doubt. SCAF followed up by dissolving the parliament after the courts ruled that the seats reserved for independent candidates were won by party members. SCAF then issued its own interim constitution that granted the army sweeping authority while ensuring it would be a major player in drafting a permanent version. Protestors once again swarmed Tahrir Square to oppose the move, which they perceived as a step backwards.

Only three weeks earlier, the courts had been at the centre of attention after a judge sentenced Mubarak to life in prison for complicity in the killing of nearly 250 protestors during the 18-day uprising that forced him from office. Also convicted was Habib Al Adly, Mubarak’s long serving interior minister. However, Mubarak and his two sons were acquitted on corruption charges. The situation was further complicated by the tension as Egyptians prepared to elect their new president (see analysis).

FORMING THE PRESIDENCY: The disbanding of parliament took place only days before the scheduled presidential elections in June 2012. However, the vote for a new executive went surprisingly smoothly. FJP candidate and leading Muslim Brotherhood figure, Mohamed Morsy, scored a narrow win over Ahmed Shafiq, a former air force general and the last prime minister of the ousted regime. The months since Morsy’s election have been characterised by an appeal to stability and unity, with the appointment of a technocratic cabinet and a general adherence to existing economic policies.

Relations with SCAF have evolved, however, as Morsy moved to strengthen civilian oversight of the military. Other changes have indicated a modest consolidation of presidential power. Morsy annulled the constitutional amendments announced by SCAF prior to the presidential elections and replaced them with his own. He also made a member of the Muslim Brotherhood minister of information and then replaced 50 editors of state-owned newspapers and magazines with appointees chosen by the FJP-dominated upper house of parliament. Then, in August 2012, following an attack in the Sinai that left 16 border guards dead, Morsy dismissed senior members of the military and intelligence services, including Field Marshal Tantawi and the army’s chief of staff, Sami Anan. The top military leaders were replaced by more junior members of the guard in a deal that many believe reflects a back-room agreement between Morsy and the army going forward.

WALKING A TIGHT ROPE: Egypt’s political transition has been contentious and complicated, evidenced by the competing interests and responses of the public and leading figures. Former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and one-time presidential candidate Mohamed El Baradei exemplifies this by endorsing Morsy’s dismissal of SCAF as “a step in the right direction”, while simultaneously expressing concern that the president now retains both legislative and executive authority.

Although the date for new parliamentary elections has not yet been determined, the priority for the country’s elected officials at present is to draft a new constitution that will delineate the authorities of the various branches of government. Like many of the post-revolution state-building attempts, this step has been fraught with tension. However, once finally drawn, the draft constitution will be put to a national referendum, and within 60 days of its approval new parliamentary elections will be held. In the event that the draft is not approved, the process will begin anew, and the transition will be drawn out even longer. According to reports in the local press, the draft should be ready for submission by the end of the year, although a date for the referendum has not yet been set.

Volatility during the transition to democracy was inevitable, given the raw state of the country upon Mubarak’s exist. Graft, red tape and ineptitude had eaten away at public institutions, and the military, with little experience in representative governance, found itself shepherding Egypt to democracy.

GROUP DYNAMICS: The tense and fractious dynamic between the three principal groups jostling for power – Islamists, the military and liberal activists – has protracted Egypt’s goal of a stable democracy. Having swept the parliamentary elections and secured the presidency, the Islamists have emerged as the big winner, although there has been a degree of uncertainty over how to best capitalise on this.

After initially insisting it would contest only one-third of parliamentary seats, the FJP competed in all districts. It then announced that it would not field a candidate for the presidency but later nominated two. Finally, the FJP seemed less inclined to compromise to achieve a broad-based consensus in the constituent assembly given its dominant position.

The intense national debate is likely to continue in the coming years, even if the presidency has been secured for the time being. Addressing the deep socioeconomic policy challenges that Egypt faces will require a broad consensus. Among the more pressing concerns are the domestic subsidies, which weigh heavily on an already-strained government budget. However, attempts to reduce these subsidies will increase the burden of a population that struggles with a high rate of poverty. The new administration is also pressed to repair Egypt’s weakened balance sheet while managing recent currency depreciation. Although the government wants to avoid rapid inflation given the vulnerability of the poorest segments of society, the devaluation of the pound would benefit exports and help to reduce sovereign debt.

HOLDING ON: SCAF has made an effort to conserve its power, prestige and economic interests as it makes moves to transfer authority to an elected government. “The military has a sense of superiority. They feel entitled to political power,” Rania Al Malky, the former editor-in-chief at Daily News Egypt, told OBG. Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, warns that although the army has de jure handed power back to a civilian government, it maintains de facto dominance of Egyptian politics. “Whichever regime follows will have to play within the confines set by the military,” Malky told OBG.

While the old guard has been hurt by the transition, the broader military establishment still benefits from a solid reputation. Almost every family has a member that has served in the military, and as a result the institution still enjoys respect from most Egyptians. Despite the criticism, it is difficult to imagine the military having a significantly diminished role in politics in the short and medium terms, especially as unrest continues to flare up in Sinai.

Another group vying to maintain its base is the broad umbrella of secular democrats, activists and organised labour supporters. However this group has found itself somewhat marginalised by the more organised Islamist movements and the military. Of particular concern to the secularists are the new government’s tacit moves to increase oversight of the media. Cases of forced replacements of editors at state-owned periodicals, jailing of journalists and the deportation of human rights activists have been made public. At the same time, attendance at the protests condemning abuses of power in the transition phases appears to be dwindling, with this possibly indicating that disillusionment is setting in.

BALANCING ACT: As the transition carries on and the Egyptian public seeks a return to normalcy, the secularist and liberal movements will be expected to push their agenda at the polls, not in the streets. A number of new groups have cropped up, such as the newly registered Constitution Party and the Al Adl (“Justice”) Party. The Constitution Party, which submitted its papers at the end of summer, was founded by prominent liberals, including El Baradei, although disagreements have led to the resignation of some of the more renowned figures.

Ashraf Khalil, a journalist and author of a recently published account of the uprising, Liberation Square, believes the liberals need to keep their eyes on the longer term. “I think it is a five- or 10-year process,” Khalil says. “In the short term, [the liberals] will be stomped, but they will have a chance to regroup and spend the next five years building up their grassroots, building up their message.”

However, with uncertainty and change being key characteristics of present conditions, and given that none of these three groups is monolithic, the various alliances forged between them have been highly fluid. The Muslim Brotherhood and the military, for instance, both favoured early parliamentary elections; the Brotherhood because it was the best organised and the military because it felt the Islamists would be more sympathetic than liberals to their cause. More recently, the liberals and the Muslim Brotherhood have found common cause in opposing the military’s latest efforts to preserve its privileges after handing power to a civilian government.

The groups will continue to compete for influence, most immediately in the drafting of a new constitution when fundamental questions will be raised. The biggest debates will revolve around the role of religion in the public sphere; the privileges the military will retain; defining and protecting the rights of minorities and women; and the balance of power between the presidency, parliament and the judiciary. Given the significance and weight of these issues– and the wide range of solutions being offered – forging a consensus will be neither quick nor easy.

HIGH HOPES: As difficult as the past 18 months have been, there are still hopeful signs. The political jockeying since Mubarak’s departure has set Egypt en route to erecting a legitimate, democratically elected government. Recent polls show a new-found sense of political ownership among citizens. In one survey conducted by global polling agency Gallup, 90% of Egyptians deemed it their responsibility to fix problems in their community. Another survey indicated that 75% of Egyptians believe they are not only capable, but also responsible for bringing about positive change in their society.

FOLLOWING THROUGH: It may be too early to address the revolution with a capital “R”. Morayef describes the results of the upheaval as “an organic, popular uprising, combined with a soft coup in which the military decided to dispense with its commander-in-chief”. Khalil agrees, but also points to a kind of psychological Rubicon. “A barrier of fear has been broken ... the Egyptian people will not let themselves go back to living under an authoritarian society.” Khalil also sees a new political landscape. “The imperial executive era is over ... we’re going to have an executive subjected to checks and balances.” Although the question of “revolution or coup?” cannot, be definitively answered as of yet, the scrawls on the walls of downtown Cairo indicate that the overarching sentiment survives: Al thawra

Egypt’s journey from dictatorship to democracy has not been an easy one, but with a new president in place, all eyes are on the road ahead. Although no one can predict how the circumstances will unfold, it is certain that the country’s future will be uniquely Egyptian. The entire world continues to watch as the political machinations and social debates unfold, because regardless of the outcome, their impact will be felt across the region. For demographic, geostrategic, historical and cultural reasons, Egypt remains the biggest prize in the Arab struggle for democracy.

You have reached the limit of premium articles you can view for free. 

Choose from the options below to purchase print or digital editions of our Reports. You can also purchase a website subscription giving you unlimited access to all of our Reports online for 12 months.

If you have already purchased this Report or have a website subscription, please login to continue.

Cover of The Report Egypt 2012

The Report

This article is from the Country Profile chapter of The Report: Egypt 2012. Explore other chapters from this report.