Now Comes the Hard Part
A successful transition of power in Egypt is hardly assured.
What’s next for Egypt? Already, the broad outlines of a transition process are beginning to emerge in Cairo. It will include President Hosni Mubarak departing from office — perhaps as early as Thursday, Feb. 10 — and the formation of an interim government that will include opposition participation. There will be revisions to Egypt’s Constitution and legal code in order to allow competitive presidential and parliamentary elections probably before the end of the year. But, as of yet, it’s still unclear who is steering events.
It appears that three sets of actors will primarily shape the outcome of the reform process. First and foremost, of course, are the protesters. Although the departure of Mubarak is the cornerstone of their cause, they have also called for reducing corruption, expanding civil and political rights, and holding competitive elections. Many have endured great pain and injury to advance these causes. And they are still massed in Tahrir Square as the protests enter their third week. They will likely not return home until they see tangible progress toward their goals.
The looming problem on the horizon is that the most likely succession scenario — Omar Suleiman leading an interim government until elections in September — falls short of protesters’ expectations for a new order. Under this plan, power would still lie with Suleiman, who until recently was head of the national intelligence agency, which is part of the security apparatus that the crowds in Tahrir reject. If such a scenario is to stand any chance of success, the proposed interim government must include more than the usual opposition figures and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Mohamed ElBaradei. While the protesters may respect these individuals, there is little indication that they look to them for leadership. The young demonstrators seek a new political era that includes new opposition leaders. On a practical level, this means giving the youth leaders of the April 6 movement (a group originally formed in 2008 to support striking textile workers), Kefaya, Ghad, the Democratic Front, and the Muslim Brotherhood a central role in the negotiations with the regime.
Another issue to consider is whether the young people who convened the demonstrations in Tahrir Square can continue to persuade large crowds of Egyptians to join them indefinitely. The regime is hoping that the protesters will grow weary and that the general public — especially the middle class — will gradually turn against them out of resentment over the economic disruptions of the past few weeks. If the crowds in Tahrir thin, the political leverage of the protesters will decline. The most likely way to sustain the momentum is for each Friday to become a “day of demonstration” in which average citizens use their day off (and the day of prayer) to come down to Tahrir to protest in ever-larger numbers. If these Friday demonstrations steadily grow in size, the protesters will retain their political influence.
The second key group includes members of Egypt’s military, which has several varied interests to defend as the reform process unfolds. The generals will surely want to protect the military budget and their central role in decision-making about national security. The military budget, however, is not their only economic interest. The generals control millions of dollars worth of farms, factories, and trading companies that not only supply their troops, but also sell products in the civilian economy. The military also owns large swaths of prime real estate throughout the country (particularly along the coasts and the shores of the Nile), some of which it rents to private firms. Finally, the officer corps has personal economic interests at stake. Officers enjoy relatively high salaries, subsidized food and housing, vacation resorts, social clubs, and a host of other benefits provided by the regime.
The current scenario for political transition places a great deal of weight on the military. It is expected to preserve order, supervise the opening of the political system, and allow new economic policies to be implemented. The military might not be able to perform all these functions effectively. It is certainly capable of playing the security role assigned to it — after all, the military includes some 465,000 troops. However, the military’s capacity to supervise a political opening is less clear.
There is no evidence that the military supports democracy or even considers it a good idea.
Indeed, much of the political elite — of which the officer corps is a part — has been skeptical of the desirability of open political competition. This skepticism centers on the view (articulated by Mubarak in the early years of his regime) that the Egyptian people are not yet “ready” to participate fully in politics because they lack sufficient education and the cultural values associated with democracy. In this view, democratization would be destabilizing because it could be exploited by charismatic, populist leaders — particularly Islamists — who lack the skill and judgment to govern effectively. The prevalence of this view within the elite does not mean that the military is incapable of providing the backdrop of security and stability needed for a democratic process to unfold. But, it suggests that the military might not be neutral during this process and, more specifically, that it might steer the process away from the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some Egyptians (and certainly some foreigners) would welcome this role for the military. One could argue that it would be a constructive contribution — not unlike that of the military in Turkey some 25 years ago, when the generals insisted that all participants in politics accept the secular foundations of the regime. Following this example, Egypt’s generals could define boundaries for political debate that exclude particular Islamists regarded as threatening to Egyptian and regional stability. If the generals play this role with a light touch — allowing Islamists who play by the rules of democratic procedure to participate but excluding those who call for more sweeping change — their contribution could indeed be positive. If, however, they take a heavy-handed approach and exclude all Islamists (as is called for under the current Constitution), then the legitimacy of a democratic transition would be seriously undermined.
The military’s capacity to oversee a process of economic reform is also in doubt. A serious effort to restructure the Egyptian economy must include a rethinking of the military’s role in civilian production, which will probably entail the privatization of at least some military factories and the sale of significant land controlled by the military. It might also entail reducing the military budget and rethinking Egypt’s military aid relationship with the United States (including shifting some U.S. aid from military assistance to economic assistance). The generals will probably resist these measures. Nonetheless, they are essential to generating the economic growth needed to provide jobs to the many young people who supported the demonstrations.
Finally, the third group to watch is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s involvement in the demonstrations so far has been minimal. It did not officially call on its followers to participate until Jan. 28, several days after the uprising began. Although it has a presence among the demonstrators, it doesn’t constitute a majority and does not control the events on Tahrir Square. However, it remains Egypt’s best-organized opposition group and will undoubtedly play a role in any political transition.
Over the past 15 years, the Muslim Brotherhood’s leadership has expressed a commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. It accepts Egypt’s existing legal code and would seek to change it only through peaceful, parliamentary processes. Its positions, however, are not entirely progressive. It still opposes allowing a Christian to serve as president or prime minister, or allowing a woman to serve as president. But its spokespersons have stated repeatedly that it wants to participate in the democratic process and pursue its goals through nonviolent means. Unfortunately, many Egyptians are not convinced and remain fearful that it harbors a hidden agenda.
The Muslim Brotherhood needs to make particular efforts to assuage the fears of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, which constitutes roughly 10 percent of the country’s population. Although Copts live throughout the country and are present at all levels of the socioeconomic ladder, they feel especially vulnerable after several high-profile attacks against their community over the past year, including the car bombing of a church in Alexandria in early January. The Brotherhood was not linked to any of these attacks and denounced them as a blow to national unity. Nonetheless, Copts fear that if Egypt’s political and security situation deteriorates, they will face renewed assaults.
There are ways that the Muslim Brotherhood can convince Egyptians that it is not al Qaeda in sheep’s clothing. A few possibilities: Send Brotherhood youth to stand alongside their Coptic brethren to protect churches during the coming weeks, invite women into senior positions of leadership in the organization, and announce plans to form a political party that comprises both Brotherhood leaders and Copts. That said, most Brotherhood members probably consider these ideas completely beyond the pale. Yet it is precisely because they are so far “outside the box” that they are necessary. These dramatic gestures are the only way for the Brotherhood to dispel the fear that it inspires in many Egyptians.
One thing is certain: The path to a peaceful transition will be difficult. Even if the constitutional challenges are overcome, the current plan put forward by Suleiman and supported by the United States depends on a degree of selflessness and vision among the senior officer corps that may simply be unrealistic. Even if the military rises to the occasion, the country faces enormous economic challenges that have been worsened by the uprising. Furthermore, the transition process will be relatively easy to derail. For example, if al Qaeda decides that democracy in Egypt is a bad idea, a few well-placed car bombs — say, outside Coptic churches — would dramatically change the public’s and the international community’s view of the desirability of political change.
The keys for the success of this transition process are security and jobs, which will create the stable climate necessary for revising the Constitution and holding competitive elections. The United States and the European Union must be prepared to provide substantial aid to meet the immediate challenge of getting the Egyptian economy back on its feet — a fact that so far has not even been mentioned in public statements by U.S. and EU officials. However, this will not be enough. The international community must also facilitate reform of the Egyptian manufacturing sector and the growth of a broad-based private sector. This effort must include preferential trade access for Egyptian goods, perhaps within the framework of a free trade agreement with Washington. But this might be a sight too far. Congress is in no mood to increase foreign aid or grant more special trade agreements.
If a democratic experiment in Egypt succeeds, the example will transform the region and beyond. Unfortunately, a failure will have similarly profound repercussions — strengthening the United States’ adversaries, reducing the stability of the region, and delegitimizing democratic reform for decades.
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