Transition in Egypt: temptations that need to be resisted

The jury is still out on whether the transition will lead to a broad based democracy or to a coalition of sorts in which participating opposition forces will caution the reincarnation of the old regime. Much will depend on the will of nascent opposition organisations (Updated Feb 7)
Eberhard Kienle
8 February 2011

The Perils of ‘Orderly Transition’


After almost a fortnight of heavy, articulate and peaceful protests at a scale that Egypt had not seen for decades international pressures for change converge towards the deliberately vague notion of an ‘orderly’ transition. The final destination of this transition still seems to be democracy, but the former term is not always accompanied by the latter; the reference to variable time scales according to local conditions and the warnings against chaos favouring the advent of new authoritarians leave additional doubts about the extent of the transformation that is envisaged. In general terms the objective no doubt corresponds to the wishes and objectives of most Egyptians including protestors, by-standers and those pro-regime constituencies that have resigned themselves to a degree of change. Combined with transition, order seems preferable to open political conflict, chaos, violence and lawlessness. The increasing number and intensity of contacts between representatives of the regime and parts of the opposition may be read as the expression of a shared wish and will to end the current impasse and to embark on such a transition.     


However, desirable as they are in principle, attempts to engineer a smooth transition to a new political order in Egypt are fraught with a number of uncertainties. Thus the notion of ‘orderly transition’ remains ambiguous with regard to the day when President Mubarak should leave office. A vivid illustration of the ambiguity is given by the remarks that Ambassador Frank Wisners made at the Munich security conference upon his return from Cairo where he delivered to Mubarak a message from President Obama. Wisner’s view that the transition should take place under Mubarak contrasted with earlier remarks by Obama who seemed to call on Mubarak to resign or delegate power almost immediately.


Whatever the US position, the notion of an ‘orderly transition’ is compatible Mubarak’s claim on television that his departure before the presidential elections in September would lead to chaos. The argument may cut some ice at home and abroad with people whose fears about the future make them forget the recent past. After all, it is the Mubarak regime that produced the protests and failed to prevent chaos when their supporters invaded Tahrir Square. The same applies to the widespread insecurity in the streets of Cairo and other cities; the latter is the fault not only of looters and robbers but also of a regime that had reduced its police to a partisan force of repression and corruption unacceptable to the population even outside Tahrir Square and other hotspots.


Independently of Mubarak’s day of departure the ‘orderly transition’ is largely supposed to be implemented and overseen by regime representatives. From the point of view of the opposition it is certainly preferable to deal with Vice-president Omar Sulayman than with Mubarak. Sulayman is credited with the intention to build a broader tent under which pluralism will grow and strengthen, at least up to a point. However, even then the transition will be implemented by survivors of the current regime who are far stronger and experienced than the opposition. The appointment of a new government, the investigation of members of the previous one for corruption and other charges or the replacement of Gamal Mubarak and Safwat Sharif with Hossam Badrawi at the helm of the regime party are mere face lifts that reflect popularity concerns but are no real concession. Talks on Sunday between Sulayman  and opposition representatives including the protestors increasingly known as 25 January movement have not yet produced significant results. For instance, the state of emergency in place since 1981 has not been lifted All executive powers remain in the hands of the Shafik government that Mubarak had appointed to defuse some of the anger. The new committee supposed to draft constitution al amendments is advisory at best. Also, the regime still has economic clout that today it can use to compensate some for the losses incurred because of the events and tomorrow to manipulate prices or supplies to squeeze the protests through attrition; as in the past it may manipulate and divide the opposition, and raisethe spectre of Islamism  by jusing state television and other media that it controls to overemphasize the role of the Muslim Brothers – a tactic that  works not only with Europeans and Americans but also some Egyptians. Crucially, the regime remains dominated by army people who have the backing of their fellow officers.


On the other hand, most officially legalized political parties are debating clubs rather than parties with members and influence. Only some of them have fiefs and support on the ground, often though in geographically limited areas. The Muslim Brothers are internally divided along generational and ideological cleavages; it remains to be seen whether more political openness will unite them in view of better prospects to influence events or encourage ‘modernizers’ like the Wasat wing to set up their own shop. The creation of ever new opposition alliances and their subsequent demise has been a standard feature of Egyptian politics over decades. The existence of Muhammad al-Baradai’s Alliance for Change is no less precarious, not least because Muslim Brother support deters other groups. Probably Amru Musa, formerly close to Mubarak, currently secretary general of the Arab League and in search of a new role, would encounter similar difficulties should his visits to Tahrir Square increase his political capital.


The  protesters on the ground are only beginning to develop structures of coordination and hopefully a vision for the future. Obviously, conditions were rough on the Square and they could hardly do more than what they have done and achieved so far. They are legitimately afraid to (s)elect leaders who would be easy prey for the repression enforcement agencies of the regime. They will nonetheless have to move fast to establish themselves as a broadly credible alternative to the already established groups, as a central, unavoidable or even federating component of the hitherto fragmented opposition and thus as a force able to tip the balance of power against the regime and those who seek to restore it. As negotiations hardly ever succeed without some pressure they  probably have to keep their fort on Tahrir Square which the ‘neutral’ army already sought to evacuate to ease traffic flows and the return to ‘normal’ life. However, they also need to reach out to additional sympathizers and like minded constituencies inside the country. Similarly it involves the need to secure more international backing without allowing their competitors to brand them as foreign stooges. At the same time, the protestors need to be able to react to the many temptations of other parts of the opposition to strike separate deals with a regime that remains comparatively strong. The Mubarak period saw numerous such deals in which parties or the Brothers negotiated one or two parliamentary seats out of a total of more than four hundred. Finally, to play successfully on a less than level playing feel the protestors and indeed the broader opposition need to insist on the multiplication of effective checks and balances at all levels which would enable them to progressively extend their own power and influence. 


It is true that the transition to democracy needs time and should not be rushed. However, it also needs to be implemented by credible people who are above the fray or represent all stakeholders, not only by incumbents able to model it to their own advantage. Implementing the transition without a transitional executive is likely to end up in constitutional changes, an electoral law and numerous other arrangements that once again marginalize the opposition. Again Tunisia might inspire Egypt. Credibility in turn depends in part on the ability to effectively implement change. The jury is still out on whether the transition will lead to a broad based democracy or to a coalition of sorts in which participating opposition forces will caution the reincarnation of the old regime. One even wonders whether that reincarnation will involve the definite retirement of Husni Mubarak. Already he is seen again on television discussing with his new ministers how to overcome the economic effects of the events, effects that most Egyptians feel more  by the day and dread for the future.      


Eberhard Kienle

6 Feb 2011  13h30


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