Egypt's transition: the democratic challenge

The vigorous protests in Tahrir Square against Egypt's interim military rulers express the serious concerns of many Egyptians over the process of post-authoritarian change. Alina Rocha Menocal maps the problems of democratic transition and suggests how they can be overcome.

Nine months after mass protests brought down the regime of Hosni Mubarak in the first revolution of the internet age, it has become clear that the ousting of Egypt’s dictator was only one step in an unavoidably rocky road towards democratisation. The large demonstrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square on 19-20 November 2011 against the approach of the transitional military authorities put the current tensions on full view.

Meanwhile, some of the limitations of the social movement against Mubarak’s oppressive rule have begun to show. Its spontaneous, unorganised, and virtual character has also made it more difficult to keep up the pressures to fulfil the promises of the revolution.

Audiences outside Egypt who were instrumental in strengthening the cause of the protesters at the international level have become distracted and moved on. As the internet's novelty as an instrument of social change begins to settle, the struggle for democracy in Egypt remains as traditional as ever, with entrenched powers and conflicting sectarian interests still very much in existence.

Some progress has been made. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has stated repeatedly that it intends to hand over power to an elected civilian government as soon as possible, and under its command there have been moves towards greater openness, fairer rules, and more accountable institutions. Among other things, some corrupt officials have been purged and tried; the state-security agency associated with abuses under the previous regime has been dissolved; a national referendum on amendments to the constitution was approved by a substantial majority in March 2011; and restrictions on the formation of political parties have been lifted.

Yet the military has moved haltingly, mostly in response to continuing street protests. The SCAF has (to the chagrin of many Egyptians, including the protesters who have returned to Tahrir Square) disregarded many of the basic aims that inspired the revolution in the first place; continued to rely on emergency laws and summary justice dispensed by military courts; targeted media and opposition figures perceived to be critical of its authority; and displayed a tendency towards top-down decision-making.

Generals within the SCAF have also suggested that the military should be granted "some kind of insurance" under a new constitution "so that it is not under the whim of a president" - effectively seeking to protect the military from civilian oversight in the new Egypt. Overall, the SCAF appears to have carefully managed the course of the country’s transition to ensure that its institutional and corporate interests are protected and that much of the socio-political elite remains intact.

The key challenge for the emerging Egypt is thus to establish a regime that is democratic in practice as well as in name. At stake is nothing short of building a legitimate and representative political system that can break with the country’s authoritarian past, lay the foundations for a more inclusive political settlement, and rearticulate the nature of state-society relations along more equitable lines.

Elections and a new constitution

Two crucial elements in this endeavour are elections and a new constitution. The ongoing public debate over which should come first shows how sensitive the sequencing between these two fundamental priorities is. The proponents of the "elections first" camp have emphasised that elections need to be held first in order to end the post-revolutionary rule of the military as quickly as possible and provide a basis of popular legitimacy to the emerging political system. The advocates of a "constitution first" approach have argued that to be fully legitimate a new political order must be premised on the writing of a constitution that can establish the new rules of the game before elections are held.

The SCAF has outlined a course for the transition period based on holding elections first, and drawing up a constitution later. The current plan schedules elections to both houses of parliament in an extended process that starts at the end of November 2011 and continues until March 2012. The two houses will then nominate a smaller body to write a new constitution, which will be submitted to a national referendum.

Once this process is completed, presidential elections will be held, most likely by late 2012 or 2013. The Cairo demonstrations of 19-20 November are but one sign of growing impatience with the SCAF’s timetable and the peculiarly complex transition process it has instituted. Egypt’s leading presidential contenders, who have found little to agree on other issues, are united in the demand for a much shorter electoral timeline.

The emerging political order

A greater concern is that this process may not deliver a more inclusive and representative political system in Egypt. A crucial challenge here reflects the legacy of thirty years of authoritarian rule: political organisation, especially in terms of credible (opposition) parties, remains extremely weak and fragmented. Again, what made the movement that ousted Mubarak strong to begin with - its diffuse and transient nature - may become a weakness. Social activism, transformational as it may be, cannot in itself substitute for adequate and coherent organisation. So far protestors have lacked clear leadership and representation, which has made meaningful negotiation with the military government difficult.

A few well-organised groups with deep roots in Egyptian society do exist. They include the Muslim Brotherhood and elements of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, which together have dominated the Egyptian political landscape for decades. However, there are concerns that the parliamentary elections process that has been laid out is likely to favour these forces and (since the new parliament will be responsible for electing a constituent assembly) give them a disproportionate voice in determining the country's constitutional future.

This highlights another challenging aspect of Egypt's transition: the process to establish a new constitutional order has been remarkably non-participatory. For example, the constitutional amendments that were submitted to a national referendum in March 2011 were drafted by a committee of legal experts and constitutional scholars appointed by the military, with minimal feedback from other relevant stakeholders and social groups.

The same is likely to happen with the writing of the constitution itself. So far, the process has been put in the hands of the 100-member constituent assembly to be elected by parliament, but no further provisions have been made to involve citizens more broadly. But if the process remains non-participatory, it will be a wasted opportunity to generate the kinds of shared consensus and agreements on the fundamental rules of the game that are essential to sustain a viable and resilient state, especially one intended to have a democratic basis.

The process of democratisation

The next few months will be critical in shaping the course and nature of Egypt's transition. What can domestic and international actors do to address the challenges that have been outlined and to support the process of democratisation more effectively?

Two tasks in particular appear essential:

• promoting a nationwide dialogue to draft the constitution

• working to make that process as widely participatory and as inclusive as possible of all political forces in Egypt

An essential component of this effort will be an active, strategic, wide-ranging and long-term outreach to help build political parties. This would entail identifying and supporting democratic and secular interest-based parties; engaging with religious-based parties (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood); and developing dialogue with other entrenched interests, including the military and the disbanded NDP.

The host of issues at stake in Egypt's democratisation include what kind of role religion should play in the state; the place of minorities within the political system and how their rights can be protected; and how power should be dispersed and checks on its use established. These need to be addressed through an ongoing national dialogue that is as participatory and inclusive as possible of the many forces that now comprise the Egyptian political landscape. Otherwise, there is a danger that the transition in Egypt - even if it brings a change in leadership - will not deliver the kind of substantive transformation of the political system that the Egyptian people have been fighting for.

Originally published on under a Creative Commons by-nc 3.0 license.

Image top: lilianwagdy.