Take it slow, Egypt: Rushing the transition may actually kill real reforms

Progress based solely on a hasty transition would be an illusion – which might undercut the efforts of millions of Egyptian who took to the streets for change. Instead, Egypt’s opposition groups must take steps to ensure meaningful reforms within a reasonable timetable.

When I left Cairo the day after former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, I sensed a palpable break with Egypt’s recent past and a fundamental shift in the nation’s political consciousness. Yet there are real dangers that the fervor and dedication that have marked recent weeks will be blunted unless the current period of transition is methodically crafted. Efforts to ensure a speedy handover to civilian authority could end up thwarting the very progress toward revolutionary change that millions of Egyptians took to the streets to bring about.

Progress based solely on a hasty electoral transition would be an illusion – which might undercut efforts at real reform. Instead of accepting a transition process implemented and dictated solely by the armed forces, Egypt’s opposition should remain united in seeking immediate actions that will preclude diversion to military-led governance, while allowing for a more realistic transitional period.

The country’s opposition groups are keen to ensure that the armed force’s custodianship is, in fact, temporary, and not a prelude to consolidation of a revamped, military-led regime. This concern – and broader and well-justified concerns about a counter-revolution – are understandable based on Egypt’s history and recent developments. Yet, these very same concerns could lead to support for a transition process that will actually undermine the core goals of the Egyptian uprising and subvert thorough reform. A six-month timetable for popular elections, as was announced by the Egyptian military, will dictate that reform in the interim period will be shallow and that even free and fair elections will not be an opportunity for true representational politics.

Military has right intent, but limited patience

Rightly or wrongly, the Egyptian military cemented its reputation with the Egyptian people by its refusal to turn its guns on its fellow citizens and its insistence that former president Hosni Mubarak resign, once it became clear that the country’s stability depended on such a move. Opposition groups have, understandably, given the military some latitude in laying out a path toward a return to civilian authority. It is doubtful that the military would seek to add the burden of governance to its responsibilities at a time of acute economic crisis.

The Supreme Military Council has also taken several needed and reassuring steps that indicate its commitment to transferring power peacefully and returning the armed forces to their barracks. In this vein, it has dissolved the country’s illegitimate parliamentary bodies, suspended the outmoded constitution, announced that elections will be held in six months, and begun refashioning the caretaker cabinet.

However, the limits of the military’s patience for continued protests are becoming clearer, and its use of coercive force to disperse protests has again put its ultimate intentions in doubt. With stability as its utmost priority, it should now be clear that the military will probably seek the minimal level of reform necessary to contain the ethos of protest and restore normalcy.

Opposition must find unity

But a quick handover following snap elections is hardly the optimal route to achieving the stated aims of the protest movement. In fact, if the military and elements of the ancien régime were intent on blunting the revolutionary current coursing through Egyptian society, a speedy but shallow transition process would be the most effective blueprint. Egypt’s diffuse opposition, with few clear and credible political structures around which to rally, runs the risk of fragmenting further if thrown immediately into a contest for political power. Achieving tangible and consistent reforms in the near-term will require steadfast unity among opposition forces.

As opposed to being backed into an incomplete and inadequate transition process due to fears about the military’s intentions, the opposition should agree upon a shared agenda and continue to demand prompt fulfillment of those core goals.

Immediate core goals

First, remaining elements of the former regime in the existing cabinet must be removed. It is unreasonable to expect Mubarak regime stalwarts, such as Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, to lead a credible transition. A caretaker government of national unity could then be put in place to lead during this period. To ensure that this does not devolve into an exercise of political positioning, participants in the transition government should be barred from competing in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections This measure will help ensure that only technocratic figures or opposition leaders with no aspirations for elected office will come forward if selected for service in a transitional government.

Next, the Supreme Military Council must either delegate its authority to civilian figures in a caretaker government or authorize expanded civilian representation on a successor body to the current ruling council that could encompass civilian and military leaders.

Finally, the country’s draconian “emergency law,” which has long endowed the regime with dictatorial powers, must be stricken immediately. This must be coupled with an immediate release of all political prisoners still languishing in the country’s notorious prison system and cancellation of unnecessary curfew restrictions.

These inclusive and definitive transitional arrangements would reinforce popular confidence in the military’s intentions. Most important, they would also allow for a more appropriate timetable for the holding of elections, perhaps one year to 18 months from now, at which point the country’s opposition forces would be better organized to engage in competitive elections.

Out with the old – completely

A transitional government should also begin the work of establishing a vetting system to guarantee that the worst offenders of the former regime no longer occupy positions of authority in the state structure. This is particularly critical for security-sector reform. Under Mr. Mubarak, the Ministry of Interior’s primary function had devolved to repression of opposition elements and the maintenance of regime survival. Organs of the ministry, such as State Security, will need a revolution in culture that cannot be achieved simply by the removal of the most senior leaders. In fact, the level of rot within State Security is so deep that abolishing it might be the only appropriate option.

Demanding accountability at this early stage, including initiating prosecutions of perpetrators, will be necessary to distinguish the current government for the former regime and combat the rampant culture of impunity that governed relations between the Egyptian state and its citizens.

Constitutional reform now, not later

A transitional government will also have to establish an inclusive process for constitutional reform. The path is muddled by the limited mandate for constitutional change that the Supreme Military Council has authorized, and the unrepresentative body it has tasked with carrying out this effort. The current amendment process will track closely the scope of changes announced previously by Mubarak, which are only focused on the necessary changes to hold an open election and abolish extraordinary executive powers connected to the emergency law.

While this is an important step, the current appetite for regime change will require a thoroughgoing and inclusive process for constitutional change that reflects the aspirations of the Egyptian people and inaugurates a social compact. As such, a caretaker government could lay out a transparent two-step process for constitutional reform. This could include nationwide consultations by a representative constitutional assembly. While adoption of a permanent constitution is more appropriately undertaken following the election of a popularly elected government, establishing an inclusive process for constitutional reform at this stage will guarantee that the momentum for change is not blunted later by the drift of events.

Delaying the initiation of far-reaching reforms until a fully legitimate, elected government is in place might undercut the case for continued change. For the less committed among Egyptian society, the zeal for reform might well ebb once a popular election has returned the country to a civilian government, even if revolutionary changes have been eschewed in the interim. The worst-case outcome in such a scenario would be shallow political reforms undertaken during the transitional period, coupled with disproportionate and inflated representation of the former ruling party, corrupt economic stakeholders, and the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the ability of these groups to rely upon existing organizational structures.

When the Free Officers movement toppled King Farouk in 1952, the Revolutionary Command Council promised the country that it would establish a sound democracy. This never came to pass. While fear of a thwarted transition should keep Egypt’s opposition vigilant, they should not agree to potentially damaging formulas for transition as a defensive mechanism. Egypt’s opposition groups should demand that real change be undertaken immediately, while establishing a realistic timetable for transitioning to a credible, open, and pluralistic political process.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation.

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