By Abdel Monem Said Aly
The victory of the Libyan revolution, the more-than-cosmetic reforms in Jordan and Morocco, and the escalation of revolutionary attempts to oust Bashar Assad in Syria and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen signal that the wind is still blowing in the sails of the Arab Spring.
However, the transformation is not easy and the spring is full of sandstorms. In Egypt, where the revolution has passed the point of overthrowing the regime, the post-revolution transition period reflects the enormity of the difficulties. The departure of President Hosni Mubarak launched a new era for the Egyptian revolution and certainly for Egypt. But by surrendering his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Mubarak assured the continuity of the state as represented by three major institutions.
First, the SCAF represents the sovereign rights of the president and his executive and legislative powers. Second, the judiciary has been part of the revolution as the revolutionaries have declared their intent to have a democratic system based on the rule of law. Third, the bureaucracy is historically the backbone of the Egyptian state and is continuing its mission under new leadership.
On the other side are the revolutionaries. First, the youth who launched the revolution but were soon to lose its leadership have built coalitions and new political parties. Whatever their numbers, they reflect a highly fragmented arena. Second, traditional political parties that worked as the formal and informal opposition to the Mubarak regime have reasserted themselves.
Third, the Muslim Brotherhood has been reinforced by new “Islamic” parties. On the more liberal side of the Brotherhood is the “Wasat” or “Middle” party; and on the more conservative side are the long-imprisoned Islamic and Jihadist groups. Then there is the new power of the Salafists, who advocate a strict implementation of Sharia. And fourth are nonparty movements and civil society organizations that opposed Mubarak and his regime.
The organs of state and the revolutionary forces devised a slogan that the people and the army are “one hand.” Diverse revolutionary groups defined the situation as follows: The people made the revolution but the army protected it. In many ways this definition of what took place in Egypt recognized the continuity of the Egyptian state and, simultaneously, the necessity for a process of massive change. Yet the basis for political change in the country has become an issue of state under the watchful eyes of the revolution.
Given this marriage between the continuity of the state and the continuity of the revolution, it was inevitable that tensions would grow. Local forces have started taking public affairs into their own hands. Minorities have asserted their rights and the protests of the prerevolutionary period continue to hinder the economy.
Clusters of tension have grown over time. The first is related to what Egypt should do with the Mubarak regime and the crimes it committed during the revolution. After considerable tension, the ex-president and his two sons were put on trial with 48 senior regime members and their families. In a sign of instability, no fewer than four cabinets were formed between January and July – ironically, all containing members of the dissolved National Democratic Party.
The second cluster of tensions has focused on the road to be taken during the transition period to civilian rule. These tensions were among different factions of the revolution, and between some of them and the SCAF. While a portion of the revolutionaries, particularly liberals and those on the left of the political spectrum, pushed for a kind of steering committee or presidential council made up of civilians and military personnel to run the affairs of the country, others – the Islamic organizations plus the nationalists – opted for allowing the military to run Egypt’s affairs.
The first group opted for electing a constitutional assembly to draft a new constitution as a basis for legislative and presidential elections. The second group opted for a contrary process, one that begins by electing a legislative branch that will be empowered to select a constitutional council to draft the new constitution. The SCAF took the initiative and formed a committee to amend eight articles of the 1971 constitution and put them to a referendum. They were approved on March 19, 2011, by a majority of 77.8 percent.
These amendments reduced presidential powers and limited the president to two terms of four years each. Then the 1971 constitution was replaced by a constitutional declaration to cover the transition period. The referendum also launched the transition through the election of two legislative councils. In many ways, the results of the referendum codified the split in the revolutionary camp.
This led to the third cluster of tensions, centering around how to deal with the SCAF. Does the military council represent the political leadership of Egypt, therefore can it be criticized and held accountable by the public? Or is it part of the army that should be honored for protecting the country, therefore constitutes a “red line” that revolutionaries must not cross?
Liberals and leftists took the first view and accused the SCAF of favoring the Islamists, who adopted the second view. A new political configuration began emerging, creating its own dynamic, altering between confrontation and accommodation. The road map for transition was finally accepted, as was an Al-Azhar document based on a consensus regarding guidelines for a constitutional council that will maintain the characteristics of a civil state.
Daily events also provoked tensions, lately in north Sinai, where Israel accidentally killed Egyptian soldiers after an attack. While augmentation of the Egyptian military presence was agreed, the Israeli response to soldiers’ deaths was considered inconsiderate of Egyptian lives. The situation in Sinai has reintroduced the Arab-Israel conflict into Egyptian domestic politics after it had been the president’s domain. This will complicate Egyptian domestic politics, Egyptian-Israeli and Egyptian-American relations, and the management of Egyptian national security and foreign policy.
Abdel Monem Said Aly is president of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.
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