Egypt without Mubarak, or Mubarak without Mubarak?

There is a mixture of change and stasis in the transition to democracy in Egypt today. The dangers of stalling are real, and the EU has an important role to play
Eberhard Kienle
3 March 2011


President Mubarak has left office for his Sharm al-Shaykh villa, allegedly sick and depressed. His and his family’s personal fortune is under scrutiny while a travel ban temporarily prevents all Mubaraks from leaving the country. Other representatives of the ancien regime are already under investigation for corruption, abuse of power, and the unlawful use of violence against ordinary citizens during the recent demonstrations that led to Mubarak’s departure. Among them are the former ministers of housing, the interior, industry and commerce.

The rigged parliament ‘elected’ last autumn has been dissolved while some independents like the renowned lawyer Yahia al-Gamal and some members of opposition parties have entered the government. A specialist committee composed of politically diverse lawyers appointed by the Supreme Military Council has made recommendations to amend the constitution until a new one will be drafted and voted by a more representative assembly, possibly in no more than six months.

As published the recommendations sound reasonable and meet key demands by the protestors on Tahrir Square and other opposition groups. Thus the term of office of the president would be reduced from six to four years, renewable only once. His powers to declare a state of emergency would be curbed; they would be premised on parliamentary approval, even on a popular referendum if renewed. Nor would the fight against terrorism henceforth allow government to suspend basic rights. The president would also have to appoint a vice-president, something Mubarak only agreed to a few days before his downfall.

The new military leaders also seem to consult more frequently with opposition figures than they did in the early days after assuming power; in the last couple of days they seemed to listen carefully not only to Muhammad al-Baradai but also to the delegates of the young protestors who over weeks filled Tahrir Square.


However, at the same time, these former regime representatives are being investigated by a chief prosecutor who was appointed by former president Mubarak and until recently was the chief legal servant of the regime, prosecuting dissidents while protecting acolytes and clients.

The proposed constitutional amendments may exclude Egyptians of dual nationality or married to foreigners from running for president thus disqualifying some contenders. Al-Baradai denies he has taken out citizenship of any other country but has already been accused of doing so, simply because he lived many years abroad.

The government is still headed by Ahmad Shafik, appointed by the outgoing Mubarak and a close friend and collaborator of the former president. It still includes stalwarts of the old regime like the minister of justice Marai. The regime party, the National Democratic Party, has had headquarters on the Nile corniche burnt down but continues to be a formidable if fragmented interest group for those who benefited from the ancien régime. There is talk that the military may want the government to stay on till parliamentary elections are held in a few months from now.
Of course, the military itself was one of the main pillars of the Mubarak regime.     

After thirty years of rule by the same autocratic president and sixty years of authoritarian rule a new and more democratic political order clearly cannot emerge over night. Conscious of the herculean tasks in front of them and the country the young protestors have even demanded a transition period of one year instead of the six months frequently referred to by the officers.

Desiccated by decades of repression  and cooptation political parties, for instance, have to be rebuilt from scratch to play a role other than that of ossified debating clubs for small minorities cut off from the larger population or fig leaves for a regime eager to cultivate democratic appearances. Similarly, the announced ‘restructuring’ of the security services will take considerable time and energy if one considers their endemic corruption, complacency and violence.
Still, the question is whether the transition to democracy is in good hands as long as it is largely in the hands of people who were part and parcel of the Mubarak regime. Transitions elsewhere were successful because they involved a more substantial degree of power sharing with the opposition. They never excluded representatives of the old regime, but they reduced their influence more substantially. More key ministries would have to change hands, and more checks and balances would have to be built into the various parts of the government, administration and ‘security’ services.

Compared to the remnants of the Mubarak regime the opposition is perhaps strong in numbers, but still weak in capacity and resources. Coordination mechanisms and bodies have grown out of the spontaneous demonstrations trying to represent hundreds of thousands of activists and concerned citizens. But will they match the combined soft and hard power of the ‘transitory regime’, including hundreds of thousands of trained and equipped troops acting under relatively coherent command?

Continued mobilization in forms acceptable to the majority of Egyptians is necessary to level the playing field to an extent at least. How to achieve this is another question. Moreover, a new constitution, however perfect on paper, will only guarantee liberties and participation if constitutional and legal checks and balances are backed up by strong political competition. Hardly any political force other than the leftovers of the NDP and the Muslim Brothers could at present structure a semblance of such a competition. Even they run the risk of  disintegrating into smaller groupings.

If Europe and the United States seriously seek to promote stability in the Southern Mediterranean and other Arab countries they should seize the opportunity of popular upheavals produced by and large by people who just want to be considered as equal human beings and historical actors. Put differently, by people who except for their material conditions and related interests to share far more with the global North than Northerners fearful of the South ever imagined. Europe and America should therefore push for even handed power sharing arrangements in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere that – democratically - take into account numbers, not only the current organizational strength of the different forces. Funds available under the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy could finally be put to good use as encouragement to complete the transition to democracy and later to build economies that unlike current neoliberal recipes have served the interests of the many, not only the few.


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