Egypt Eyes Life after the Pharaoh

Most Egyptians are devoting their attention to ensuring that the country’s military leaders transfer power to a civilian government as quickly as possible.

Friendly Relations 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Friendly Relations 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
THERE IS A GREAT EUPHORIA IN CAIRO THAT IS still palpable on the streets of the capital and in the step of its citizens. Banks are reopening, residents are cleaning up, and activists who used to operate underground are testing their newfound freedoms. Even the pyramids have been reopened to tourists.
But the jubilation is giving way to some jarring questions. How long will the military be in control? After the thrill of the revolution, how should Egyptians traverse the road to democratic reform? Will the new Egypt continue its alliances, from its pro-Western tilt to its peace accord with Israel? “We did it!” exclaimed Ahmad, a 24-year-old pharmacology student draped in a large Egyptian flag in Cairo’s Liberation Square. “We brought down the pharaoh!” As he shared his joy with a foreigner, tens of thousands of Egyptians surrounding him burst out in cries of glee, some dancing, others embracing strangers turned comrades.
Eighteen days into an uprising that shook the world, the protesters who beat back riot police and thugs, sent out to clear them from the square, survived their toughest challenge: forcing the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. For more than 29 years, Mubarak ruled this country with a heavy hand and security forces that stifled any whiff of dissent. Emboldened by a revolution in Tunisia and using the latest social networking technology, a group of youths succeeded in bringing down the dictator.
As Mubarak desperately clung to power that was quickly slipping through his hands, neutered opposition parties that the regime had long cowed finally began finding their voice. Among them was the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood whose outlook has stoked fears of an Islamist takeover in the West.
In a meeting with The Jerusalem Report, a mid-level official in the Brotherhood explains the movement’s policies. “We are not going to declare war on anybody,” the official says referring to fears of a possible attack against Israel. “Egypt has many internal problems that need to be solved before we can look to project our power abroad. We need to judge those that punished society,” he says, referring to former ministers who enriched themselves at the public’s expense. “Our positions on the [Camp David] peace treaty are well known, but we have other priorities.”
Egyptian analysts corroborate this outlook. One expert on Islamist extremism here who has long studied the Brotherhood explains that the group does not want to scare Egyptians by advocating policies that are out of step with mainstream society.
“Egyptians are certainly not happy with Israeli policies, but they don’t want to go to war. They lost too much. They want stability. Because it is already facing an uphill battle to win over society, the Brothers don’t want to rock the boat with too many demands.” Other Egyptian politicians have not taken such conciliatory positions.
The secular activist Ayman Nour, who ran for president in 2005 and was later imprisoned on charges of political impropriety, has already announced that he will call for annulling the Camp David accords. A number of the young activists who spearheaded the campaign to bring down Mubarak have called for cutting gas shipments to Israel.
THOUGH SOME ARE FOCUSING ON ISRAEL, MOST are devoting their attention to ensuring that the country’s new military leaders transfer power to a civilian government as quickly as possible. Following Mubarak’s resignation February 11, a group of generals announced they were assuming control of the country. While the protesters in the square were originally elated by the announcement, today they want the military brass to step aside and allow the democratic process to begin.
“We didn’t spend three weeks in the square just so a bunch of generals could take our glory,” says 28-year-old Khalid, a computer programmer who had come to Liberation Square every day during the uprising.
The burgeoning opposition here shares Khalid’s sentiments. They want a slew of reforms. Chief among them is their demand to abolish the state of emergency which has reigned here since Mubarak took power in 1981. The law allows the state to detain anyone it deems to pose a threat to national security without trial. They are also calling for amending the constitution. The current charter makes it almost impossible for opposition parties to compete in parliamentary elections because it calls for a judicial committee to vet candidates.
In previous elections, the body disqualified thousands of candidates. Their demands echo among Egyptians in the street. “We have a lot of changes that need to be made. The former regime prevented us from doing a lot,” says 43-year-old Muhammad. The engineer wore his sweater baggy, in a style that is popular here. “I want to have a democracy, just like you.”
The military junta appears to be listening to Muhammad and others like him. It is moving swiftly to transfer power to civilians. It appointed a committee of constitutional experts to offer recommendations on how to amend the constitution within 10 days. And it announced that presidential elections would be held in six months.
Though many here and abroad worried the military would be reluctant to give up power, the generals have surprised everyone with their desire to return to the barracks as soon as possible.
It was the military that appears to have ended the 18-day crisis.
With the president clinging obdurately to power and his adversaries digging in and pitching tents in Tahrir Square, no one saw a way out of the impasse. For two weeks, the generals refused to relieve the embattled Mubarak of power. But they equally refused to fire on the protesters. Playing both sides of the divide, they were able to retain their loyalty to the president while retaining the admiration of the people.
Already, changes are being felt. On February 19, a Cairo court approved the country’s first party with an Islamic background, Al Wasat (the Center). The moderate Islamic party, founded by a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, had been trying to get a licence to operate as a political party for the past 15 years.
Although the military opted for change by gently easing Mubarak out of power, it seeks stability. While the generals quickly announced they would respect all international agreements – a thinly veiled reference to the Camp David accords – they must work to clarify the rules of the game with society to ensure such a commitment is possible. Only then can Israel and the West’s fears of the future be eased by the blowing winds of change and the uncertainty in the region. Furthermore, the military’s promise to enable timely free and fair elections is enough to keep the people happy temporarily.
The real test will be in six months when the world finds out whether their assurances can come to fruition.