Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Egyptain Military Council (photo: AP)
Egypt in Transition

A Little Fear, a Lot of Worry

Quo Vadis, Egypt? Political observers and supporters of the 25 January Revolution are critical of the fact that the military council is increasingly avoiding any kind of control by the people and is giving old political cronyism precedence over real democratic change. Hassan Nafaa reports

Where is Egypt headed? I've heard this question being asked by everyone, everywhere, as if there were no other questions worth asking.

No doubt this clearly reflects a state of collective anxiety, uncertainty, and perhaps concern over what the future holds. Therefore, I believe the question deserves an answer, complete with explanations and analysis, in the hope of identifying the causes behind the country's current impasse and overcoming it. In my opinion, there are three main reasons for this state of affairs.

The first reason concerns the vague definition of the transition phase and the lack of a definitive deadline for it to end. This ambiguity, which many people suspect to be deliberate, has led to a general sense that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is taking too long to hand over power, which some are convinced it will never give up.

The second reason concerns the difference between the way the SCAF is managing the transition, and what was expected or hoped for by the forces that sparked the revolution, or by those who later joined it.

This difference has caused a widening gap between the public and those in power.

The third reason concerns the lacklustre performance of the political elite, which theoretically represents those pushing for change following the revolution's success in overthrowing former President Hosni Mubarak. Differences have erupted between them regarding what the new political system should look like and how it should be built. These differences have led to a distortion of the revolution in public opinion, and a paralyzed ability to bring about needed changes required for achieving the revolution's objectives.

No real progress

As this is not the place for detailed analysis, I simply will point out the following observations:

The first observation concerns the concept of the transition phase and its assumed duration. It is well known that after officially taking office on 11 February, the SCAF announced it intended to hand over power to democratically elected institutions within a six month period. However, seven months have now passed with no real progress on this path.

Demonstration against the Military Council in Cairo, 2011 (photo: dpa)
A protestor demonstrating against the arbitrariness and omnipotence of the military council: there is massive resistance on the ground to the enactment and recent toughening of emergency laws in particular

​​According to the rules currently in force, parliamentary elections are expected to begin late September and end mid-December. The new parliament's elected members will be charged with appointing a committee made up of 100 members within a six month period following the first parliamentary session. The committee will be charged with writing the new constitution, which should be finished and put up for public approval or rejection within six months after the committee is formed.

If things go as planned, the new constitution should be ready by late 2012. However, the fact that the constitutional declaration, in its current form, doesn't require the SCAF to set a specific deadline for the presidential elections, may eventually lead to intense debates among political groups. The SCAF will have two alternatives: either holding presidential elections before the new constitution is completely drafted, or postponing elections until after the new constitution is written and comes into effect.

Since the first alternative would inevitably lead to various political and constitutional complexities – not least of which is holding presidential elections before settling on whether a presidential or parliamentary system will be used – it is expected that the second alternative will be chosen.

If that happens, Egypt would remain without a president until March 2013 and with a transition phase having lasted four times longer than that set by the SCAF. In this case, military rule would continue for an additional year and a half.

This is one of the most important reasons for the concern currently felt by Egyptians.

Loss of valuable time

The second observation concerns the system being used to manage the transition period. The SCAF adopted a reform approach based on gradual change within narrow limits – in other words, sacrificing the regime's head and main figures – while upholding its main principles as well as its internal and foreign policies.

Since the revolution called not only for toppling the regime's head but also the regime itself, it was only natural that the gap between the rebels' ambitions and the reality imposed by the SCAF would widen. This explains the reappearance of million-man protests in Tahrir Square.

Essam Scharaf, Egypt´s current Prime Minister (photo: dpa)
On the political sidelines: the powers of interim head of government, Essam Scharaf, are extremely limited in the face of the enormous power wielded by the military council under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi

​​Proof of this lies in the fact that the SCAF previously resisted demands to reshuffle former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik's cabinet, which was appointed by the ousted president. It reluctantly accepted the appointment of Essam Sharaf as prime minister.

It also insisted on retaining as many ministers from the old regime as possible, thereby wasting time before eventually recognizing the need to appease public opinion by making the necessary changes.

The SCAF then repeated the same approach when it decided to change some of the provincial governors appointed by Mubarak, in an unmistakable sign that the SCAF is adopting the same old standards in the appointment of provincial governors. Thus, valuable time – which could have been spent creating the required changes – was lost.

Unstable relationship between government and military council

There are other reasons for concern. The relationship between the SCAF and the government is still unstable and unfit for the proper concept of a transition government charged with the task of undertaking the most significant political mission in the history of Egypt's national movement. The transition government is supposed to carry out a peaceful and orderly transition from a state of revolutionary legitimacy to a state of constitutional legitimacy.

The SCAF is dealing with Sharaf's cabinet in the same way that Mubarak dealt with former governments, without a parliament to monitor the performance of executive power. Therefore, returning to Tahrir Square seems like the only available alternative to exercise some form of supervision and pressure on legitimate authority.

Egyptian flag (photo: dapd)
If the transitional phase continues to be managed in the same fashion as it has, the revolution will inevitably regress and a major crisis will emerge, writes Hassan Nafaa

​​The third observation is the fragmentation of forces benefiting from change. These forces, which were unified by their hate of the former regime, dispersed as soon as they succeeded in toppling its head; since they failed to remain unified, they failed to remove the rest of the regime and agree on the basic principles for building the new system.

There is no doubt the SCAF's reform policy for managing the transitional period played a role in deepening this division, which began with the formation of a committee to amend the Constitution, and then escalated with the referendum and religious rhetoric. It reached a peak with the debate over whether the constitution or the elections would come first. Despite continued efforts to overcome the bickering, political groups continue to falter.

In addition, the revolution's success in toppling Mubarak led regime figures – media and intellectual personalities in particular – to change their public positions. Everyone tried to appear that they had been with the revolution and the revolutionaries, thereby magnifying the confusion by blurring the line between those with and against the revolution.

As a result, the public is confused, amid irresponsible accusations and increased polarization between Islamic and other political movements.

Therefore, if the transitional phase continues to be managed in the same fashion as it has, the revolution will inevitably regress and a major crisis will emerge. For this reason, there's an urgent need to begin managing the transition phase in a completely different manner.

Hassan Nafaa

© Al-Masri Al-Youm 2011

Hassan Nafaa is Professor and Chairman of the Political Science department at Cairo University.

Qantara editor: Lewis Gropp

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