The political storm brewing in Egypt is threatening the
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Though there is open warfare between the Muslim Brotherhood,
advocating a religious regime for the new Egypt, and the secular parties
fighting for a secular model, both sides are united against the current
electoral law as well as the timetable for voting set down by the Supreme
Council of the Armed Forces.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party
and the liberal Wafd party say they will boycott the November 28 parliamentary
elections unless the emergency laws are repealed.
The Mubarak regime
crushed every political party bar its own, and there was no political or
economic debate; the Egyptians were thus ill prepared to deal with the new
situation and the dozens of parties – old and new – competing for their
Eight months into the revolution, no party has been able to propose
a coherent program of economic and political reform. The Muslim Brothers, who
are well organized and can boast of a solid political and social infrastructure
throughout the country, have nothing to offer beyond the institution of an
Islamic regime which the majority of the people do not want. The movement’s
leaders are making vague and contradictory statements in order to hide their
true intentions – having the Koran for a constitution and Shari’a for a judicial
system – but the fact is that the only difference between their program and that
of al-Qaida is that – so far – they want to implement it by nonviolent
There are many self-proclaimed presidential candidates, but none
with the kind of charisma which could sway the crowds. Former Arab League head
Amr Moussa claims to be the most popular.
This might have been true in
the past, but not anymore. He is too much a man of the old regime to convince
the people that he could lead the country to a brighter future.
to Egypt after 12 years abroad, Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of
the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize winner, has not been able
to develop his support base.
Then there are a number of former army
officers, retired judges and Islamic figures, all of them making brief
appearances in the media from time to time, with no great success.
lies the army’s great dilemma: There is no one to take over. And so they keep
changing the schedule they had set immediately after seizing power. Field
Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who heads the Supreme Council, had declared at first
that the army did not want to rule and would hand over the governing of the
country to civil institutions as soon as a parliament was elected, which would
happen within six months. Elections were therefore due to be held in
Observers felt that the army was getting closer to the Muslim
Brotherhood and was hoping that its Freedom and Justice party, together with
what was left of the former ruling party, would mold the new regime. Minor
changes were made to the constitution; in a referendum held on March 19, the
Brothers and members of the former ruling party were in favor, while all the
secular parties rallied against the changes.
The “yes” advocates garnered
70 percent of the votes.
It soon became clear that the army was
interested first and foremost in safeguarding its own interests, and they are
many. A secular, democratic regime – if such a thing could be attained – might
very well start investigating the army and its close links to Mubarak’s regime,
exposing widespread corruption and leading to the arrest and prosecution of a
number of high ranking officers.
An estimated third of the economy of the
country is in the hands of army officers, some retired, some not.
frustrated crowds returned to Cairo’s Tahrir Square after the Friday prayers in
an effort to get the Supreme Council to change its ways.
They met with
Anarchy was quietly taking over. The army postponed the
elections and issued harsh decrees forbidding strikes and demonstrations
“detrimental to public order,” arrested a number of protesters and tried them in
Following the assault on the Israeli Embassy on
September 9, the army went one step further and reinstated the infamous
emergency laws it had sworn to abolish. The rift between the Supreme Council and
the secular political forces as well as the protesters was getting worse, while
the Muslim Brothers gave their reluctant support to the army in the hope that
parliamentary elections would be held as soon as possible and that they would
make significant gains which would enable them to have a decisive influence on
the drafting of the new constitution.
Bending to the inevitable, the
Supreme Council published a new electoral timetable; parliamentary elections
would begin on November 28. However, a new electoral law was also
It immediately drew fire from all sides. At issue was a
disposition keeping one-third of the seats for “workers and peasants” – a
leftover from the old constitution where it was used to appoint government
supporters to the parliament. All parties also opposed Article 5, which allowed
candidates to run as independents – that is, without being members of any party
– and was widely considered to be meant to allow members of the banned former
ruling party to be candidates.
In fact, the parties demanded that all
members of that party be banned from public office for a minimum of five years.
The electoral law was duly amended by the caretaker government and now has to be
accepted by the Supreme Council.
Meanwhile, the Friday demonstrations
went on, albeit with fewer and fewer protesters, and they began targeting the
Supreme Council, accusing it of having stopped the revolution: There have been
no reforms, economic or social, and millions of Egyptians are feeling the
Last Friday, only a few hundred showed up. The secular parties and
the Brotherhood were notably absent, the army having made an all-out effort to
come to some form of understanding with these forces. In a recent meeting
between the commander-inchief of the army and the delegates of 13 political
parties, a timetable was set for the elections and the transfer of power to
Voting for the lower house – magliss elshaab – will
start on November 28 and end on January 4 (the country being divided in three
huge electoral districts where voting is carried out consecutively). At the end
of January elections for the upper house – magliss ashura – will begin and will
be completed by late February. In early April both houses will convene and set
up a 100-member committee to draft a constitution within six months. That
constitution will be submitted to the people in a referendum. If it is accepted,
presidential elections will be held within two months. Then, and only then, will
the army return to the barracks.
Even should this cumbersome process go
through without a hitch, which is doubtful, the army will be in charge at least
until the end of 2012 – with endless opportunities for crises and even violent
Outrage and criticism were swift to follow. Even the parties
whose delegates had been present at the meeting and had agreed to it condemned
the plan. Egyptian political commentators are convinced that the intentions of
the army are threefold: Let the bitterly divided parties squabble and argue
between themselves, show them up to the public as being weak and ineffective,
and groom a presidential candidate who has the support of the
Tantawi denied the allegations and declared that the rumors were
It has also been said that the army wants to stay in power to
keep a tight rein on the trial of Mubarak, and prevent that trial from exploring
the functioning of the army before – and after – the start of the
Most presidential candidates are also claiming that the
electoral process will last too long, endangering the country’s
They want the presidential election to be held in April, after
the newly elected parliament takes office; the army would then have to
relinquish its power and let the new civilian institutions draft the
constitution without its supervision.
The Muslim Brothers have said that
they will not allow the army to have its say in the drafting of the
It has been suggested that the army wants to supervise the
drafting of the constitution not out of lofty political ideals but to ensure
that it is granted a special, independent status so that officers will be only
tried by military courts – in other words, that the army emerges unscathed from
the fall of the Mubarak regime.
The effort will not necessarily be
crowned with success.
The very notion of “independent status” is unclear;
in a democratic regime the army is under the supervision of elected civilian
Meanwhile the economy is going from bad to worse, with one
minister going as far as to say that the country is on the brink of bankruptcy.
Egypt is negotiating with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates in the hope of getting
help; it has hinted that it might renew its dialogue with the International
Monetary Fund (which had conditioned help on reforms).
With no steady
hand on the helm, Egypt is sailing into dangerously uncharted waters.The
writer is a former ambassador to Egypt.