Cairo, February 13th: The celebrations in Tahrir Square continue, but many protesters are already clearing up Some of them collect garbage and put it on top of pick-ups, while others paint over the anti-Mubarak slogans daubed on the walls all around the area during the previous 18 days. People show a remarkable ability to organise themselves largely without the need of help by the security forces or any other state institutions – as they did throughout the uprising when volunteers checked everyone who intended to enter the square, supplied the protesters with meals and drinks, and provided medical assistance to those injured during the clashes.
The people’s commitment is as unique and unprecedented as the revolution itself. The protests, by far the largest in the history of Egypt, surprised everybody – the Egyptians themselves maybe the most. Even after massive protests in Tunisia had forced President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to leave the country, most Egyptians asked their opinion denied that anything similar could happen in Egypt. Egypt, in their view, could not be compared to Tunisia, where the citizens were better educated and more active and the security apparatus was weaker and less loyal to the regime. A few weeks later, the 30-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak came to an end.
Mubarak’s long shadow
The picture of protesters cleaning Tahrir Square, however, not only shows the spirit that the uprising created among the Egyptians. It also symbolises a future full of new challenges that Egypt faces. Indeed, the revolution, while truly historical by any measure, is the first step in the long path towards democracy that lies ahead for the nation. This path comprises the establishment of a legitimate and credible transition government, the amendment of the constitution, and the organisation of free and fair elections. One of the most important steps, however, will be the strengthening of two of the key actors of democratisation that have been weakened by three decades of Mubarak’s rule: political parties and civil society organisations.
No opposition party was directly involved in the organisation of the protests. People were mobilised by various youth movements via Facebook pages, via text messages on their mobile phones or simply via word of mouth communication. “The driving force behind this uprising is the young people,” says Sherif Boraie, a publisher who lives in Cairo. “This is their revolution.”
Meanwhile, the political parties remained remarkably passive when the first calls for demonstrations appeared on Facebook. The officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, for example, supported the demonstration on January 25th but decided that its leadership would not take part. The leftist Tagammu Party fully refused to participate, stating that it was “inappropriate” to protest on “Police Day” which is celebrated every year on this date.
Of course, the attitude of the opposition parties towards the protest movement changed when they realised its dimension. They then tried to present themselves as standing in the front line of the movement. The Muslim Brotherhood installed itself in one corner of Tahrir Square, where their supporters prayed together and shouted their own chants.
Still, that does not change the fact that the revolution in Egypt took place largely without the opposition parties. This alone illustrates the sorry state in which they are. During his 30 years in power, Mubarak has managed to make them weak and dependent on his regime. In order to become active and field candidates for elections, they needed to be approved by the Political Parties Committee, a governmental body in the hands of the ruling National Democratic Party. The same committee could also freeze a party’s licence or ask the Administrative Court to dissolve it. Therefore, the opposition – the Muslim Brotherhood apart, which is not formally a party – consists only of parties accepted by the regime. “The opposition parties don’t have legitimacy,” concludes Sherif Alaa from the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement. This also explains why they are insufficiently rooted in the population. Alaa estimates that the total membership of all opposition parties hardly exceeds 50’000. “The people consider them to be part of the system,” he says.
Not surprisingly, many of those sympathising with the protest movement are deeply sceptical of the political parties. Khaled Tawil, for example, the managing director of a major Egyptian brokerage firm, says: “The opposition parties should stay out until they come up with a common agenda. They should stop pursuing their own interests. The first priority now is Egypt.”
What is true for political parties also applies to civil society organisations. According to Hamdy Hassan, Professor of Political Science at the Zayed University in Dubai, Egyptian non-governmental organisations are subject to many laws that stopped them from playing a more important role in the process of democratisation.
“In addition to the emergency law that allows the government to intervene in the affairs of civil society organisations, there is the association law which is regarded as one of the most restrictive in the Arab World”, Hassan says.
For example, not only could the regime arbitrarily deny NGOs registration for vague reasons such as “security concerns”, it also controlled the composition of organisation’s boards and the flow of foreign funds. According to Hassan, the law had been “widely criticised as providing a framework for governmental control over civil society.”
Time is short
The protest movement, having emerged spontaneously and acting without a solid organisational structure, was able to bring Mubarak’s regime to an end. There is no doubt, however, that for a successful transition to democracy, better organised actors like political parties and civil society organisations will have to play a more important role. Therefore, the current restrictions for these actors needs to be removed. “If the constitution is amended, the huge authority of the president curtailed and the state of emergency lifted, I do expect political parties and civil society organisations to flourish,” Hamdy Hassan says. Time is short, however, and concerns about the political parties’ ability to turn into legitimate and credible representatives of the citizen’s interests are well-founded.
On Tahrir Square, the protesters have taken the first steps towards a new era in Egypt’s history. Now, it is time for the political institutions to act on the demands of the millions of Egyptians that created this unique opportunity for a democratic future in their country.