Of riots and rights in Egypt and beyond

Protests in Cairo since Friday reveal the grab for dominance by the military and Muslim Brotherhood in coming elections. Civilian, secular authority is needed for a clean transition to democracy.

The Arab democracy movement remains deep and strong but democracy itself still has thin roots in the Middle East. The violent clashes in Egypt since Friday have revealed just how thin.

Egyptians overthrew a dictator nine months ago but they have yet to overthrow the dictatorial tendencies of two powerful groups – the ruling military council (which has the guns) and the Muslim Brotherhood (which holds religious sway over the rural poor).

With a vote set for Nov. 28 to elect a transitional constitution-writing Parliament, both groups are trying to preserve their influence by denying key democratic principles.

The military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, insists on unelected seats in the new Parliament, most likely to prevent scrutiny of itself. And the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that the majority in any democracy must prevail with little regard for individual or minority rights and that all laws be guided by Islam’s sharia law.

Egypt’s unfinished revolution is still largely led by idealistic youth who seek fairly elected secular government as well as a constitution that upholds basic rights. If that goal can be achieved in Egypt – long a model for the Middle East – it would help cement political freedoms for the region.

For now, however, the intellectual battle over civil liberties is being played out on Egypt’s streets, with control over Cairo’s Tahrir Square as the symbol of which side has the upper hand in this national debate.

Last Friday, thousands of Muslim Brotherhood followers gathered in the square to protest the military’s dominance, only to be pummeled by police, who, in turn, were hit with rocks from young people demanding immediate civilian rule and a delay in the elections to allow a fair opportunity for new political parties. At least two dozen protesters have been killed.

On Sunday, the Brotherhood asked these “politicians and intellectuals” not to go against “the will of the people” – meaning don’t delay the elections and thus erode the group’s political dominance.

Even before the riots, Washington – which supplies a quarter of Egypt’s military budget – was forced to weigh in. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stated earlier this month: “If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity.”

Egypt should not go the way of Turkey, which for decades saw the heavy hand of the military in politics. Nor must it go the way of Iran, where Muslim clerics call the shots in a weak democracy through the use of the thuggish and armed Revolutionary Guard.

The Muslim Brotherhood does promise to put up candidates for less than 50 percent of the seats. But few in Egypt believe it will not ultimately seek political dominance. The Brotherhood already has forced the weak secular parties to accept that sharia will be the main source for legislation.

Transitions to democracy are often difficult in newly liberated countries and often take years. Yet the Arab Spring that began nearly a year ago in Tunisia was clearly guided by high ideals of democracy and rights – with Islamists largely on the sidelines of protests and the military seen more as foe than friend. In Egypt, the authoritarian state system left behind by Hosni Mubarak is still largely intact, with the military council having fumbled the process toward democracy.

It may now be necessary for liberal civilian reformers, such as former diplomat Mohammed ElBaradei, to be given temporary positions of  authority in a government of national unity. Rights and freedoms should not be hijacked by the powerful before they are even implemented.

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