Egypt: the post-Mubarak period is a work in progress
Francesco Aloisi de Larderel, former Italian ambassador to Egypt 14 September 2011

The honeymoon between the Army and progressive movements is now over

At the moment the situation seems rather confused because the Supreme Council has not effectively produced, or at least not made public, a road map for the transition to democracy, but instead announces its decisions through decrees (so far there have been 144 decrees), to then review or partially amend them if street protesters or civil society express an excessively strong reaction. This of course results in uncertainty, made worse by the fact that until elections are held, there is no exact idea of the real power in terms of votes of the main political players (be they political parties or, at a later date, presidential candidates).

But in the meantime the SCAF is managing a country in which the regime’s fall has allowed the expression of all kinds of demands, progressive and conservative, secular and religious, in a country with serious economic and public security problems still immersed in well-known regional political tensions. In implementing this function the military “establishment” is progressively losing its characteristics of the “impartial referee” it appeared to be at the beginning of the “Egyptian Spring” to assume a series of conservative positions that are resulting in increasing clashes with the progressive and innovative movements that inspired it.

Progressive movements are protesting against the continuation of the custom involving the use of military trials for civilians, against charges brought against journalists who criticize the military leadership, against the attitude assumed by the state press – which seems to be following policies that do not differ greatly from those in the days of Mubarak – against a campaign of accusations and inquiries involving NGOs and civil society’s organisations, especially those defending human rights from persistent abuses by authorities. These associations have even been accused of high treason because they receive funding from abroad, and on this subject, a bravely sarcastic progressive leader observed that if there is anyone in Egypt who has always received large amounts of financing from abroad, it is precisely the Armed Forces.

The tug-of-war also concerns the trial of former President Mubarak, his two sons and his last Interior Minister, a trial that the new military leadership has been obliged to start under pressure from protesters.

Another difficult issue is the rising insecurity perceived by citizens, caused by the break-up of police forces that followed the fall of the regime. Many consider this an intentional phenomenon created to emphasize the risks of rushed political renewal and to obstruct its progress.

As mentioned above, these protests often supported by massive demonstrations held by progressive forces in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, at times achieve their objective. The government is effectively trying to reform the police forces so as to remove the stigma of its being a means of repression as happened during the past regime, and recently announced that it was considering abolishing the state of emergency in force in Egypt since the attack on Sadat. The government has announced that it will no longer resort to the exceptional measures that emergency laws allowed and were widely used in the past. The fact remains that the progressive movements’ confidence in the military authorities has been basically undermined and they often also have to deal with criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood.

The first steps in creating constitutional and political infrastructures are led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The main novelty on the path to political reform was the government’s recent announcement that, in consultation with the main political movements, it is preparing a document that that will provide the guidelines for a “constitutional statement” to be approved by the SCAF and containing the principles to be respected by the future constitution of the republic. This announcement has a number of implications.

Firstly it confirms that the new constitution will be drafted after the elections, and therefore that its contents could be powerfully influenced by the winners of these elections, who may include the Muslim Brotherhood as well as former members of the deposed president’s old party, the NDP. Furthermore, this path appears to strengthen the role played by the armed forces as protectors of the new democracy which seems destined to arise from an act implemented under their rule.

The government’s document is far from being definitive, but, so as to provide an idea of the problems it implies, the main debates concern the state’s secular or denominational status, Islam’s influence on the law, the republic’s presidential or parliamentary characteristics, the status of the armed forces, civil and human rights (and in particular reference to international conventions), social and economic rights and the composition of what will be the Constituent Assembly. Everything is still to be decided.

The Armed Forces, whose budget could be exempt from parliamentary approval, will probably remain responsible for the country’s defence and national security. However, the Chief of the General Staff has said that the state’s secular status is part of the country’s security. One is immediately drawn into comparisons with Turkey, the one led by Kemal Atatürk, rather than the country led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In the meantime, on July 18th an Electoral Commission was appointed with the task of organizing the November elections (no longer September as initially planned). The Commission, presided over by a magistrate, will also prepare lists of voters, electoral lists and supervise a month-long electoral campaign. Once again the prospects are not clear, since the electoral law has not yet been approved and it has already been announced that international observers will not be allowed.

Progressive and reformist movements are known to be worried since the short timeframe imposed by the SCAF favours organizations that are already solidly present in the country, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, or those with significant financial backing, such as the new parties created by former members of Mubarak’s NDP. Moreover, the electoral law, although not yet approved, envisages a combination of constituencies with the proportional system and the uninominal system, which would favour these two groups. The Muslim Brotherhood on the other hand, is backing a “Democratic Alliance”, within the framework of which they have gathered their official “Freedom and Justice” party, various old Egyptian political parties (Wafd, Karama, the Nasserists, el Ghad) as well as a number of new political movements created by former representatives of Mubarak’s NDP.

For the moment there is no talk of presidential elections, and it is difficult to address the policies of the many candidates, for the moment only “in pectore”, until the new constitution is approved.

Circumstances demand a short timeframe for completing the transition.

One is amazed at the short timeframe imposed by the SCAF for taking the first steps towards the country’s constitutional and political renewal, which certainly restricts the possibilities for consultation and participation by political players, many of which are just beginning to get organised. Objectively, however, there is little time.

The country’s economic situation, never very brilliant, is in fact deteriorating rapidly. The budget deficit is now 10% of the GDP, unemployment is 12% (probably underestimated), inflation 11.8%, tourism has fallen by 33%, and the Egyptian lira has devalued by 12% against the euro. Foreign currency reserves have fallen from $36 billion to $26 billion, and the Central Bank’s reserves have been used to pay minimum wage increase, not to mention the traditional grants for oil and food. There is clearly an urgent need to create state institutions and make way for political forces capable of addressing this economic situation and its worrying social consequences.

Another reason for reducing the timeframe is the reappearance of traditional international tensions in the area that Egypt is part of, which will and already do influence the internal political climate. The recent launching of missiles on Israel, presumably from Gaza, seem to be a provocation that risks once again bringing into play Egyptian policy regards to Gaza and the Rafah border crossing, not to mention relations between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. All this is happening while waiting for the Palestinian Authority’s unilateral declaration of independence to pose more general problems. In the meantime border incidents with Israel have endangered diplomatic relations and the young man who burned the flag flying at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo has become a hero for Egyptian public opinion. Nowadays in Egypt the voices raised demanding a review or a repeal of the Camp David Agreements are not just a few.

The tension between the Shiite and the Sunni worlds also has repercussions in Egypt, where for the first time, among the many new parties, a Shiite political movement has been formed. These are underlying issues that will clash with the conditioning inevitably experienced by a country like Egypt, depending on international aid, and risk having internal repercussions.

The values destined to influence politics in this new Egypt

This situation, for the moment reasonably blocked at the level of internal structure, seems destined to gain momentum once the democratic process is started with first the parliamentary and then the presidential elections. While it is clear that one cannot predict the country’s evolution, one can address the values that will mobilize the Egyptian political scenario.

On one hand there are of course the values that inspired the uprising against the previous regime, with a search for personal freedom and dignity, the fight against corruption, and social justice. The emergence of these values is the Egyptian Spring’s great novelty, and their understanding and sharing is probably destined to spread when there is a generation change, but one must acknowledge that they are not yet entirely appreciated by most of the population.

Egyptian society’s far more traditional values reflect a range that goes from the masses of poor and very poor peasants (35% of the population is illiterate) to economic and business circles that now see threatened the relations they had established and the privileges they had enjoyed under the previous regime.

Islam (but also Coptic Christianity) is still Egyptian society’s real adhesive and transcends in some way these divisions. However, at a political level, this is expressed in various ways. The Muslim Brotherhood’s “Freedom and Justice” party is divided into the more conservative and the more progressive groups and organised in far more extremist Salafite movements and the more moderate Islamists of El Wasat.  It will be crucial to see how the Muslim forces (the Muslim Brotherhood, the el Azhar University) will interpret the modernisation of Egyptian society. One must hope that this will take place in the hoped-for manner, as explained elsewhere by the young member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Dina Zakaria.

Fear of a very real economic crisis, as well as an equally real fear of a degradation of security mentioned earlier, will certainly play against this. These are all elements that may be useful to those wishing to obstruct from within or from the exterior the country’s democratic evolution.

To this one must add strong anti-Israeli sentiment, the existence of which must be realistically acknowledged and necessarily taken into account by any democratic government far more than the Mubarak government ever did.

In summary, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is entrusted with the task of creating institutions that will allow the country to abandon its currently extremely fragile situation, and it will probably be, above all, up to the Muslim Brotherhood to mediate within these institutions, perhaps still under the watchful eyes of the Armed Forces. A positive outcome is possible, but it is not guaranteed.

Translated by Francesca Simmons