Of all the democratic uprisings in the Arab world, none is more consequential than the one in Egypt. The most populous of the Arab countries and a historic giant in culture and regional politics, an Egypt that gets it right can serve as a model and stabilizer for this troubled neighborhood.
On the democratic plus side, voters have overwhelmingly approved amendments to the existing Constitution that open up the political process. A new president will be limited to two terms of four years each and restrictions on the types of candidates have been lifted. Parliamentary elections are due in September, followed by a presidential election. It seems that the interim military council that runs Egypt wants to get out of the governing business as soon as possible.
Unfortunately, the hasty voting schedule favors established political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Those who began the revolution are meantime struggling to organize and unite into political parties. They objected to the drafting of the amendments, which was a secretive process.
The Brotherhood has said it will not put up a candidate for president. But those who fear a takeover by fundamentalist Islamists worry of Brotherhood parliamentary gains that will then influence the drafting of a new constitution.
No one knows whether the Brotherhood will live up to its pledge of nonviolence and support for a democratic state. It could be that the Brothers are not the ones to be feared, but rather a minority group of fundamentalist Muslim Salafists who are growing bolder by the day.
On the streets, meanwhile, a certain fear has set in. Crime went up substantially when the hated police disappeared over the course of the revolution and several prisons were opened and criminals released. The police are back now, but more timid and in fewer numbers. The Army has arrested demonstrators and reportedly tortured people.
The economy, too, is suffering from insecurity. The revolution interrupted commerce, and political uncertainty acts as a damper. The large tourism industry is way down. The Egyptian Finance Ministry has more than halved its growth forecast for this year, dropping it to 2.5 percent – low for a developing country. And while the military rulers are now going after the Mubarak coterie for corruption (including Mubarak himself), some worry that the very people who tried to free up Egypt’s economy are now being targeted.
Developments are also mixed on the foreign-policy front. Egypt says it will honor its international treaties, including its bedrock peace pact with Israel. Phew! And yet, this week Cairo announced it would resume diplomatic ties with Iran after a break of more than 30 years. Lots of democracies have ties with Tehran, of course, but will Egypt be tempted to placate Iran to the detriment of Cairo’s traditional role as mediator for a peaceful resolution between Palestinians and Israelis?
Now, and in the future, Egypt’s wobbly democracy-in-progress needs support from the international community – whose self-interest is to see that this great experiment succeeds. Other countries, including the United States, must be ready to help with trade, capital investments, aid, and institution building – but at the request of Egyptians themselves.
The protesters rightly claim the revolution as their own work, and they must be its ultimate safeguard. That they continue to come to Tahrir Square on Fridays, keeping the pressure on the military rulers, is the most hopeful sign of all.