Marc Lynch

Egypt’s Transition Can’t Wait

  The call to accelerate the transition to civilian rule in Egypt has taken on a new urgency this week.  A wide range of political forces are calling for the SCAF to cede power to an elected leadership by February 2012.  There are many different ideas about how to do this, perhaps through the new ...



The call to accelerate the transition to civilian rule in Egypt has taken on a new urgency this week.  A wide range of political forces are calling for the SCAF to cede power to an elected leadership by February 2012.  There are many different ideas about how to do this, perhaps through the new Parliament selecting an interim Prime Minister or perhaps by holding Presidential elections at the end of January.  All of the ideas have their problems. But those problems pale against the threat to the Egyptian democratic transition posed by the continuing misrule of and escalating resort to violence by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. I believe that the calls for a new President by February should be taken very seriously indeed. 

This weekend’s anomic violence on Qasr el-Aini Street does not likely augur the rekindling of popular revolution, as the protests were almost completely contained to a few blocks and seem to have attracted little popular sympathy.  But the wildly disproportionate, undisciplined, and frankly brutal response by the army does show graphically why the SCAF is rapidly losing its legitimacy to rule among the political elite.  It really doesn’t matter whether it ordered the violent crackdown against the Cabinet sit-in or undisciplined troops began the violence on their own, since both point to something deeply problematic.  Such crises will continue to recur and intensify as long as the underlying problem of military rule remains unresolved. 

The greatest political accomplishment during the last bout of violence in November was that the SCAF agreed to to hold Presidential elections and the transfer of power by June.  But as one of Cairo’s savviest political analysts told me yesterday, "we can’t take six more months of this." 

The same arguments about the need for a transfer to civilian rule circulated after the horrifying violence which broke out November 19, when the images of tear gas and police brutality shocked Egyptians and the world.  That violence outraged Egypt’s political elite and ordinary people alike, suddenly bringing back the massive crowds to Tahrir which months of efforts by activists had failed to generate.  The Obama administration released a rare public criticism of the SCAF which called for "the full transfer of power to a civilian government must take place in a just and inclusive manner that responds to the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people, as soon as possible." Under that pressure, the SCAF replaced Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, formed a largely powerless but determined civilian Advisory Council, and — most importantly — agreed to hold the Presidential elections by June 2012 rather than the vague suggestions of some time in 2013. 

The success of the first round of Parliamentary elections blunted the momentum that had been building for such an accelerated transition.  The high turnout and orderly procedures in the first round of elections had left the SCAF feeling clearly vindicated.  The SCAF was reportedly furious with the unprecedented public American criticism.  They were also, I am told, very unhappy with the November 30 NYT/IHT op-ed in which Steve Cook and I argued that the SCAF was fomenting instability and should be held accountable for their use of violence against civilians, and urged the U.S. to throw its weight behind early Presidential elections.  

Instead of getting angry, they should have listened. This weekend’s renewed violence has shattered the illusion of their successful management and left their measures in tatters.  At least 10 members have resigned the Advisory Council in protest, including the ones who were trying to draft a constitutional framework. The silence of Prime Minister Ghanzoury has painfully illustrated his irrelevance. And the elections — while vital — are not alone enough.  This week’s violence shows yet again the urgent need for an accelerated transition to civilian rule and rebuilding of a national political consensus, before events spin wildly out of control. 

The response to the crisis absolutely must not include canceling the Parliamentary elections.  Holding those elections in the face of activist opposition, major administrative hurdles, and multiple opportunities to postpone them is the one thing which the SCAF has done right. Elections and the building of democratic institutions are the only way to forge a genuinely legitimate alternative to military rule. Indeed, the next big battle to consume Egyptian politics is still almost certainly going to be the struggle between a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled elected Parliament and the SCAF over political authority.  Canceling elections which the Islamists are poised to win is perhaps the only thing which could move Egypt towards the feared scenario of Algeria 1991.  Completing the Parliamentary elections and seating the new elected body is an essential part of the political transition. I fundamentally disagree with those who see the elections and the protests as opposed, rather than complementary, means to force the SCAF to surrender power.

But it’s not enough.  There are a number of different proposals now being discussed in Cairo for how to proceed.  One proposal is for the immediate transfer of executive power to the Parliament upon completion of the elections.  Another is for the Parliament to select an interim President. Yet another is for Presidential elections to be moved up to January 25.  These calls have gained the support of an impressive range of political trends, from leading Muslim Brotherhood figures to liberal icons Amr Hamzawy and Ayman Nour to former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to Presidential candidate Abd el-Moneim Abou el-Fattouh to revolutionary youth groups to former members of the SCAF’s Advisory Council (see this Facebook page for more).

The problems with such an accelerated Presidential election are of course daunting, as the incivise analyst Hassan Nafaa emphasizes today.  It would require the junking of the SCAF’s transition timeline, creating a new wave of uncertainty.  It would mean the cancelation of the elections to the (largely irrelevant) upper house, though I doubt anyone would notice or care.   More worrying, it would mean that both the executive and the legislative branches would be seated without a new constitution delineating their powers — though this is also a potential positive, since there would then be time for an extended period of drafting a new Constitution, rather than a frantic rush to write and ratify one before June.  There would be little time for Presidential candidates to campaign, giving a huge advantage to those such as Amr Moussa who have been building an electoral machine for many months.  The Parliamentary selection alternative would galvanize fears of Islamist domination, since the likely Muslim Brotherhood Parliamentary majority would be in a position to select the President (even if it would likely opt for a consensus candidate for strategic reasons). 

But for all those obstacles, accelerating the transition to civilian rule is the best way forward. The recurrent political crises and outbursts of horrifying violence by regime security forces demonstrate clearly the existential costs of the SCAF’s mishandling of the transition. The Parliamentary elections should continue, the upper house elections should be canceled, a civilian President should be elected by February (though I’m unsure as to whether the Parliamentary or electoral route makes the most sense), and full executive and legislative authority should then be transferred from the SCAF to these democratically legitimate bodies.  The constitution should then be drafted over the course of a year, followed perhaps by new elections. 

I don’t expect the SCAF to willingly agree to this plan, or even to agree with the diagnosis of its failures, given its confrontational response to the Cabinet violence crisis and aggressive use of state media to shape Egyptian opinion.  But it is ever more clear that the SCAF is not capable of overseeing a genuine democratic transition, and that its recurrent resort to violence against its own people should badly undermine its legitimacy.  The protest-violence dynamic is turning uglier with every iteration.  It needs to be short-circuited in favor of a bold new transition plan before it’s too late.

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