Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The world must keep its eyes on Egypt

By Tamir Moustafa Reposted from

After 18 days of unprecedented popular protest, a pro-democracy movement managed to displace a dictator of three decades. This is the story celebrated around the world in the international media. But the real transition – whether Egypt will become a democracy or will merely see the emergence of a reconfigured authoritarian regime – will be played out over the weeks and months to come. Although it is impossible to predict how events may unfold, there are three paths forward: direct military rule, military rule with a civilian face or a constrained democracy.

Many in the pro-democracy movement are understandably wary of the first two possibilities. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military junta that is currently calling the shots, is deeply invested in Egypt’s current regime. The military is active in many parts of the economy and is probably implicated in the corruption that has been a rallying cry for the opposition. In the name of political reform, the military has suspended the constitution and dissolved the People’s Assembly. And although these were two principal opposition demands, these moves also conveniently place the military outside the bounds of any legal constraints.

The military has issued successive statements reiterating its commitment to free and fair elections and a return to civilian government within six months, but there are reasons to be skeptical. According to Human Rights Watch and other credible monitoring groups, the military has not yet ordered the release of hundreds of demonstrators detained during the protests. Nor has the military acted to rescind the emergency law. In other words, the military has thus far only accommodated the opposition demands that have maximized its own room for manoeuvre.

An early test for the military’s commitment to democracy will play out over the next 10 days. During this period, a constitutional reform committee will work on amendments to the constitution. Perhaps the most promising indication that this constitutional reform committee will make the changes needed for a clean break from the past is Tuesday’s announcement that it is chaired by Tariq al-Bishri. Mr. al-Bishri is a towering Egyptian intellectual and a prominent jurist known for his independence from the regime. His appointment to chair the committee is the first clear sign that the military may be serious about a real transition to democracy.

But even if the constitution is properly amended, a web of illiberal legislation that is not in the constitution will remain on the books. Laws regulating the press, political parties, police powers, elections, trade unions, non-governmental organizations and just about every other area of political and social life were designed to strengthen the hand of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. Whoever inherits the executive branch will therefore have a variety of legal instruments that can be used to undermine further reform efforts and reassert authoritarian rule. The road to political reform, in other words, will be fraught with difficulties for some time to come.

While the most likely scenario is the eventual emergence of a civilian government, the real question is to what extent this civilian government is willing and able to remain autonomous from the military, which, as the past week has made clear, is the ultimate power broker in Egypt.

All of this legal and political jockeying is far less spectacular than the images of street protests, riot police and Mr. Mubarak’s fall from power. But the international community must keep its eyes on Egypt. Although many Western governments were reluctant to call for Mr. Mubarak’s resignation, international attention helped to shape the context in which the Egyptian military considered its options during the three weeks of protest. International pressure can likewise play a productive role in the weeks to come. This is, without a doubt, the most critical period that will determine whether Egyptians will emerge with a democracy, or simply with a reconfigured authoritarian regime. Egypt is not out of the woods yet – not by a long shot.