Middle East: Egypt Continues March to Democracy

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Credit: arabismo.itBy Ernest Corea*

WASHINGTON DC - As the January 23 deadline for the inauguration of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak People’s Assembly (parliament) approaches, the thoughts of politically conscious Egyptians must inevitably turn to the conundrums that lie beyond the recently concluded elections. Prominent among these is the role of the military as the country continues – or attempts to continue – its transition from oligarchic military rule to a nascent democracy.

President Jimmy Carter’s account of how the military views its place in the political structure confirms the crucial nature of this issue. Briefly, the military’s approach is: Yes, but. (Carter who was in Egypt as an election monitor had wide ranging discussions with key political figures.). 

Al Jazeera reported that following his contacts with the leadership of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Carter said: "The military would like to transfer full control and authority to elected officials." In his assessment, however, "the military wished to continue to have a political role."

Carter explained: "When I met with military leaders, my impression was they want to have some special privilege in the government after the president is elected," and added his own belief that "the military should be completely subservient to the elected civilian officials".

There you are: Yes, but.

Power Role

The SCAF concept of a democratically elected regime co-existing with an authoritarian military power within the same national power structure appears unworkable. SCAF, it would seem, wants the country to be "slightly democratic."

The armed services, however, appear to be confident about their own strength and unity. This is confirmed by the announced visit to Libya of SCAF head Field Marshal Tantawi. Military leaders who fear that their back is exposed rarely leave home. 

On top of SCAF's desire to retain a power-role, the post-Mubarak conduct of the military has been fraught with dangers to civil liberty, as assessed by Amnesty International in its 2011 report on the Middle East and North Africa.

Although SCAF "pledged repeatedly to deliver on the demands of the January 25 revolution, " Amnesty International "found that they had in fact been responsible for a catalogue of abuses that was in some aspects worse than under Hosni Mubarak.

"The army and security forces have violently suppressed protests, resulting in at least 84 deaths between October and December 2011. Torture in detention has continued while more civilians have been tried before military courts in one year than under 30 years of Mubarak’s rule."
 
Time to Celebrate

Carter found that 900 claims of election malpractices were made. At the same time, there was much violence during the election period, some of it demonstrably by or with the connivance of the military.

Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties up to now and those that might lie ahead, "the march to democracy has started. These (the elections) are the first fruits of our revolution of January 25. It is time to celebrate. But it is also time to pay homage to the dead and wounded who made this possible. The fallen must never be forgotten," Ismail Serageldin, a distinguished Egyptian intellectual, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and formerly a Vice President of the World Bank, told IDN via email.

Elections to the People's Assembly have been completed, and figures released up to January 9 (i.e. excluding the results of run-off elections held January 10-11) show the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, ahead of other contestants, with a haul of 193 seats out of 498. (Ten more members of the Assembly will be nominated by the President, bringing total Assembly membership to 508.)

The Salafist Al Nour, a conservative Islamist group, was second with 108 seats. Other parties or coalitions that reached double figures were Al Wafd with 38 seats, Egyptian Block (30), Reform and Development (11) and the Revolution Continues (10).

The key responsibility of the Assembly in the coming months will be to choose a 100-member constitutional council that will draft the country's post-dictatorship constitution. The extent to which SCAF keeps its hands off the selection of the council and its deliberations will provide a very clear indication of how interventionist its continuing conduct will be.

Highest Turnout

Egypt's parliamentary elections were held in three rounds as there are insufficient judges to monitor all the polling stations in the country simultaneously. Forty seven political parties, some of them loose-knit coalitions of like-minded groups, fielded over 6000 candidates in all. 

A second three round election will be held from January 29 to March 11 to select the 270 members of Egypt's upper house, the Shura Council. The country's new president is expected to be elected in June.

Even at this stage, however, reaction within Egypt to the transition, long drawn out as it is, from a dictatorship to a democracy grounded in the will of the people, is one of great enthusiasm.

Serageldin captures that spirit when he says:

"The wide spread of political ideas represented in the election campaign is great. Democracy is about pluralism, and pluralism is about differences of views. The point is to settle these differences through the ballot box, not by confrontation in the streets. Egypt needs us all…."

Some 62 percent of eligible voters (over 8 million people) participated in the first round. Compare this with voter turnout in US federal elections of 56.8 percent in 2008 and 37.1 percent in 2006.

"This is the highest turnout in Egypt's history since pharaonic times until now," said Abdel Moez Ibrahim, the head of Egypt's Elections High Commission.

Reaching Out

Throughout the election campaign, the FJP and its originator the Muslim Brotherhood, said that their goal is to create a free, secular state. Much now depends on the extent to which they govern by that assurance.

The Muslim Brotherhood knows that it has achieved a high level of acceptance in society partly as compensation for the suffering it endured under the Mubarak regime, and also because of the social and economic support it provided the poor through efficient and effective networks of health clinics, schools, and other social services. 

Expectations of systemic expansion and improvement among those who benefited from these services will be high. This, at a time when Egypt is trying to climb back to the annual GDP growth rate of 7 percent it achieved before it felt the impact of global recession. So this is not a time for ideology but for ideas that can generate action. 

It is a time for consensus building and a time for reaching out to combine the various strands of the country’s substantial human resources. The world saw what they could achieve together, during the January revolution. But uniting is not going to be easy, particularly after a hard-fought election.

Political parties elected to the Assembly have demonstrated their commitment – at this stage, at any rate – to consensus building, by agreeing to share leadership positions in the Assembly.

A kind of olive branch has, meanwhile been extended to the armed services, through unofficial but distinct speculation about amnesty to the military for past actions.

Changing Course

Internationally, it will be difficult for governments and institutions that played footsie with Mubarak's dictatorship and sustained it, all in the name of "stability," to change course and move into a realistic relationship, based on mutual interests, with a new, post-Mubarak government.

The Government of Israel, already isolated, and now reportedly building a barrier along the Sinai border, will be concerned that Egypt could reject existing bilateral agreements in spite of the assurance by the Muslim Brotherhood and other political entities that they will not. 

The US in particular will face tough challenges ahead. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered Mubarak a "family friend", she told Al Arabiya in 2009. She will now have to forge a new kind of friendship with whoever becomes her potential partner in the next Egyptian government. 

A positive sign is that the US Government has already made contact with the Muslim Brotherhood, thus rejecting the course of antagonism followed by the Bush Administration in reacting to the election victory in Gaza by Hamas, a fraternal party of the Brotherhood. 

The US Government has poured billions of dollars into Egypt since the Camp David accords were signed. Most of those aid funds went to Egypt's armed services. Can the US Government and, in particular, the military, find an effective means of using that relationship as leverage to ensure that the Egyptian military does not stand in the way of genuine progress?


Then, of course, there is the brooding, "1000-lb gorilla" encircling the US-Egypt relationship: the issue of Palestinian rights and security. Any Egyptian government that is created by the will of the people will be supportive of the Palestinian cause. That new reality has to be understood and appreciated. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta's recent assertion that Israel must “get to the damn table” is a small but well noted first move.

Free and Just Society

Egypt has launched a process of significance to itself, to the region, and to the international community. Whether that process results in the creation of a truly free and just society will depend very much on the Egyptians themselves. They have, throughout the revolution that tragically took so many lives but dislodged the jackboot of dictatorship, managed their affairs with dedication and skill. There is no reason why they should not continue to manage their post-revolution process in similar fashion.

But, given the world’s interdependence, they cannot possibly succeed entirely on their own. They will need and deserve all the support they can muster. 

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

Photo: Woman casting her vote | Credit: arabismo.it 

Ernest Corea's previous IDN articles:

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