Opposition groups in Egypt must now rise to the challenge of negotiating a good transition

The new regime will not come into being on its own. It needs tough and careful negotiation so that the right balance between stability and change is struck. The US and EU have their small part to play
Eberhard Kienle
14 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 régime 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, industry commerce, and the interior.


There are real politcal changes too. The rigged parliament ‘elected’ last autumn has been dissolved.  A 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. This should happen under the supervision of a new parliament, possibly elected within the coming six months. Put to a popular referendum to be held on 19 March the amendments sound reasonable and meet some key demands by the protestors on Tahrir Square and other opposition groups.

The amendments include reducing the term of office of the president would 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. All elections would again be held under the supervision of the judiciary whose rulings on complaints about rigged results would also be definite and binding.

At the same time, the new military leaders  seem to consult more frequently with opposition figures than they did in the early days after assuming power; they have met with the various parties, the Muslim Brothers (officially not a party),  Muhammad al-Baradai, and delegates of the young protestors who over these weeks filled Tahrir Square. Faced with continued protests they have dismissed the government of Ahmed Shafik, appointed by the outgoing Mubarak, and appointed a new one headed by Issam Sharaf, a widely respected former technocrat minister who openly sympathized with the protestors; after being appointed he even met with them on Tahrir Square. The new cabinet includes respected independents like the constitutional lawyer Yahia al-Gamal and the labour law specialist Ahmad al-Borai, as well as members of opposition parties like Goda Abd al-Khaliq of the left leaning Tagammu Party and Munir Fakhri Abd al-Nur of the ‘liberal’ Wafd Party.  

However, it is also true that the former regime representatives are being investigated by a chief prosecutor who was appointed by former president Mubarak and until recently obediently carried out regime policies prosecuting dissidents while protecting acolytes and clients. The proposed constitutional amendments would exclude Egyptians of dual nationality or married to foreigners from running for president thus disqualifying some contenders. Muhammad al-Baradai denies he has taken out citizenship of any other country but has already been accused of doing so, simply because he lived abroad for many years. Apart from the new provisions governing the state of emergency the amendments fail to restrict the vast powers vested in the president; hence they heavily bias in his favour the principle of the separation of powers that the constitution formally claims to adhere to.

It is not surprising that a lively debate about the amendments has ensued, among constitutional lawyers and the broader public alike. There are wide spread fears that the revised constitution will facilitate the return of a revised type of authoritarian rule, reinforced by the yet patchy road map to transition as well as by uncertainties about the order in which legislative and presidential elections will be held and the rules that will apply. Formally the state of emergency has not been lifted, even though the old constitution under which it had been declared decades ago is effectively suspended. Numerous other pieces of legislation will have to be amended or abrogated to guarantee the respect of democratic procedures and human rights. Examples are the restrictive laws governing elections, the creation and activities of political parties, and the exercise of political rights more generally.The regime party, the National Democratic Party, has lost  its headquarters in a fire on the Nile corniche but continues to be a formidable if fragmented interest group for those who benefited from the ancien régime.  Most disturbingly perhaps, some protestors have disappeared or are still imprisoned, apparently by the armed forces. A participant in a recent demonstration in front of parliament has been sentenced to five years in prison by a military court. Probably not everybody in uniform is convinced that the interests of the officers, the army and the country are best served by a political compromise with the protestors and the broader opposition to the old regime.    

After thirty years of rule by the same autocratic president and altogether sixty years of authoritarian rule a new and more democratic political order cannot emerge overnight. Conscious of the Herculean tasks in front of them and the country the young protestors have even demanded a transition period of an entire 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, selective complacency and generally violent methods. While in the last few days protestors and citizens managed to attack and search some offices of the state security apparatus (which has not been controlled by the military) the documents they found and even more so the documents they did not find has reinforced fears that the forces of repression are secretly regrouping elsewhere.  

The  question remains whether the balance of power between survivors of the old and advocates of a new order has changed sufficiently to ensure the transition to democracy or at least a power sharing arrangement in which the forces for change will be well represented. Negotiated transitions never exclude representatives of the old regime, but they should reduce their influence substantially. The opposition is perhaps strong in numbers, but it is still weak in capacity and resources compared to the remnants of the Mubarak regime. Yet, even a million demonstrators on Tahrir Square do not necessarily represent the majority – there are 75 million Egyptians.

Coordination mechanisms and bodies have grown out of the spontaneous demonstrations trying to represent  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 ? Thus the opposition needs to continue to mobilize in forms acceptable to the majority of Egyptians if it wants to level the playing field to an extent at least.

The consensus among protestors that a new, more participatory political regime was needed does not ipso facto reflect a consensus about other political choices. No doubt long standing economic grievances, aggravated by rising food prices, the global financial crisis and the absence of freedom of expression, account for much of the popular discontent in Egypt and in other parts of the Middle East. Many protestors belong to those parts of the  ‘middle classes’ who see themselves as losers of the orthodox economic reforms and liberalization implemented over the past decades, either because they actually got poorer or because they were increasingly distanced by the relatively few beneficiaries of these reforms. Many other protesters belong to social groups that have more or less consistently lived in poverty. Yet others, however, have been upwardly mobile until they found their economic and political aspirations thwarted by crony capitalists and authoritarian rule.

The economic and social policy preferences of these groups necessarily diverge considerably, some for instance favouring a return to progressive taxation, others defending current flat rates. Such differences may increasingly strain the relations among the different groups that together forced Mubarak to step down. Overall the opposition may become more rather than less divided in the run up to the elections that could be held in the summer. Though contributing to political pluralism these divisions among the opposition may strengthen the remnants of the old regime.

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. At present hardly any political force other than the NDP and the Muslim Brothers are in a position to  structure at least a semblance of such a competition,  provided of course they do not disintegrate into smaller groupings; . The NDP has been battered by the popular upheaval while the Muslim Brothers face a revolt from within by younger and less doctrinaire members; with reference to the protests against Mubarak they are already calling for their own ‘day of anger’ against the current leaders of the organization. At any rate, other parties and groups are worse off; they need more time to grow, organize and establish their credibility in the eyes of the voters.

The same applies to potential candidates for president. Al-Baradai may continue to receive some support from the Muslim Brothers who say they will not field a candidate of their own but he also suffers from divisions among his supporters. Amru Musa, the former foreign minister and current secretary general of the Arab League, may emerge as a powerful challenger representing continuity with the old regime but without its outright repressive features. Not unlike al-Baradai he rose to prominence from within the ranks of the bureaucracy before distancing himself from the regime, though discretely. His decision not to challenge Mubarak openly may help him mobilize considerable support among supporters and nostalgics of the former president.      

If Europe and the United States seriously intend to promote stability in the Arab countries they should seize the opportunity of upheavals produced by people who seek precisely what most Americans and Europeans also seek: an improvement in their living conditions and the respect of rights and liberties that we tend to conceive of as universal. They should therefore push for negotiated transitions based on power sharing arrangements with guarantees for all sides, followed by free and fair elections once the various political forces have been able to organize. In line with a logic of positive conditionality funds available under the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy could  be put to good use as an encouragement  to complete the transition to democracy and  to economies that strike a better balance than before between growth and distribution, public and private, market and regulation.. Naturally the EU itself would have to substantially revise its policy of cooperation with the Southern Mediterranean and the Arab countries, moving away from crude neoliberalism combined with equally crude provisions to protect European agricultural markets.


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