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Saturday, September 24, 2011
Is There Light At The End Of Egypt's Tunnel?
Egypt is a mess right now, but if its Army can figure out how to
give up power and set elections on course, there's still hope for a happy
By James Traub
The Egypt revolution still in a mess
is a mess. This month, the country's interim military government, the Supreme
Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), issued Decree 193, stipulating that the
country's long-standing emergency law would be expanded to include such
offenses as "infringing on others' right to work," "impeding the
flow of traffic," and "spreading false information in the
media." The SCAF had promised that the law would be repealed by September,
before scheduled elections began; a few days ago, officials declared that it
would be extended until June 2012. No one knows when a constitution will be
drafted or presidential elections held, because the SCAF won't say so. Egypt's
military rulers seem not so much determined as paralyzed.
of course, is inevitable; the question is whether Egypt's revolution is in
danger, and if so, what it is in danger of. The fears being aired in the
Egyptian media include that the SCAF won't leave, that Islamists will control
the new government, and that the interim council's drift and opacity will
deepen chaos to the point where whatever new government takes over, whenever it
takes over, it will be overwhelmed with troubles -- a fate that the riots
outside the Israeli Embassy on Sept. 8 may have been a deadly harbinger of.
This last scenario seems the most probable, but any of them would call into
question the success of the Arab Spring. The transition in Tunisia is looking
less problematic than it is in Egypt; but Egypt is of course much bigger and
much more important than Tunisia. If Egypt fails, so does the Arab Spring.
underlying problem is that when a dictator is deposed, power must be vested in
some entity until elections can be held. In Egypt, it was the Army that forced
out the dictator, President Hosni Mubarak, and it was the Army, alone, that
enjoyed sufficient national prestige to inherit his rule. (In Tunisia, with a
much weaker army, power has passed to a civilian-led commission.) But elections
cannot be held until new political parties can be formed, electoral
institutions established, and, often, a new constitution drafted. And at
present parties are still forming, merging and hunting for candidates, while
drafters of a new constitution are too busy debating whether to include
overarching principles to focus on constituent elements. This means that the
interim government will serve for long enough that it must exercise power even
if it is neither inclined nor competent enough to do so -- a description that
seems to fit the SCAF quite well.
SCAF appears both unwilling to govern and unwilling to let anyone else do so.
When Prime Minister Essam Sharaf was appointed in March, he was widely seen as
a tribune of Tahrir Square, a liberal democrat in the inner councils of state.
But Sharaf and his cabinet have proved to be irrelevant. And the senior military
officials who have inherited power are not, of course, democrats of any kind.
They benefited from Mubarak's autocratic rule and shared his values. The
council has refused to explain its decisions, refused to share power with
civilians, and refused to tolerate media criticism of its own practices. The
SCAF's intransigence has forced democracy activists to return again and again
to Tahrir Square, because the new leaders seem to respond only to public
pressure. As Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
has written, Egypt "is teetering between authoritarianism and the diktats
of the street." It's a dangerous moment.
the danger Egypt faces is not perpetual military rule. The SCAF plainly wants
to return to the barracks; a much more plausible worry is that the military,
which has its fingerprints all over Egypt's economy, will insist not only on
preserving its traditional privileges but on dominating a weak and divided
civilian government from the shadows, as the military does in Pakistan. That's
a long-term concern. The short-term concern is indecision and drift. Last week,
a group of presidential candidates publicly demanded that presidential
elections be held by June 2012. Right now, no one knows when they will be held.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled to run from late November through March.
A constituent assembly appointed by the parliament is to approve a
constitution, though the timing is also unclear. And Egypt's electoral
commission has not said whether presidential elections can be held before,
during, or after the promulgation of a new constitution. A new president may
not be chosen until mid-2013. Who would rule in the meantime? It's not clear.
El Amrani, an Egyptian who blogs at arabist.net, says that the rampant
uncertainty "is really unnerving to the population; it's radicalizing the
political class, because they're fighting over issues that should have been
settled months ago; it's incapacitating Egypt's ability to answer its domestic
problems; and it scares away foreign investors." Egypt's economic growth
has slowed to a crawl, and teachers and other civil servants have been going
out on strike. The emergency law is in part a response to rising social
tensions. It's not hard to imagine a downward spiral of protest and crackdown
virtually paralyzing daily life. Street protest maybe the only way to get the
SCAF to shorten the electoral schedule, and thus its own hapless tenure.
come what may, there will be a civilian government on the other side. And
though it may have a strong Islamic cast, it won't actually be Islamic. As the
sole politically organized force in the country, the Muslim Brotherhood is
likely to win a plurality of votes in the parliament, though no one has the
faintest idea how large that plurality will be. Michele Dunne, who heads the
Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, estimates that
the Brotherhood will win between 15 and 40 percent of the seats allocated to
political parties -- itself an unclear fraction of the whole -- with the rest
divided among a wide range of groups and blocs: members of the former ruling
party, the largely secular liberals who manned Tahrir Square, Islamic reformers
who split off from the Brotherhood, and the Salafists, who follow a rigidly
orthodox brand of Islam. The Brotherhood, catering to fears that it could
dominate the new government, is not running a candidate for president, though
it certainly could furnish the new prime minister. Without a constitution, it's
impossible to know what the distribution of powers between those two offices
most hopeful scenario is that Egypt will have a very rough patch to negotiate
but will come out more or less OK on the other side. El Amrani says that he is
much more worried about the short term than the long term -- a refrain one
often hears. Democratic transitions by their very nature are rocky and demand a
great deal of patience from the activists who have sacrificed to make them
possible. It will be harder in Egypt than in Tunisia because its politics are
more divisive; but in Egypt, as in Tunisia, millions of people have been
mobilized in the name of change and will not easily allow their revolution to
hope that's the case. New democracies usually have a grace period of several
years to prove that they can deliver the basics of a good life more effectively
than the autocracies they replaced. Egypt may need that time, and more. An
inexperienced and internally divided government may find itself unable to deal
effectively with immense social tensions and economic problems, not to mention
an overweening military. Democracies fail all the time: Look at Venezuela or
Ukraine. Establishing a democracy isn't hard; preserving it is.
can Americans do to help? Not very much, it seems. Egypt is in a deeply
nationalistic phase. Last month, the country turned down a $3 billion
International Monetary Fund loan, apparently in a burst of anti-Americanism.
The riot that engulfed the Israeli Embassy in Cairo this month shows how popular
fury, long suppressed under Mubarak, has now been unleashed. That anger will
only grow if the United States is compelled to veto Palestine's bid for
statehood at the U.N. Security Council. Washington was the chief ally of
Mubarak, as it is of Israel. Even U.S. military aid to Egypt matters much less
than it used to, as Egypt's economy and defense budget have grown. Washington
will have to be patient, accepting that though the revolution may be harmful to
American interests in the short run -- and certainly harmful to Israel's -- in
the end it will produce a more stable and more peaceful Middle East.
-This commentary was published in The Foreign Policy on 23/09/2011
-James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and
author of, most recently, The Freedom Agenda