Egypt: Back to Tahrir, but for what?

Salma Shukrallah, Thursday 26 May 2011

Egypt's political forces are split over the country's transitional period, including over the timing and order of elections and the writing of a new constitution

An Egyptian man fills in his ballot indicating "Yes" at a polling station during voting for a referendum on constitutional amendments at a polling station in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

Political forces in the post-January 25 Revolution period are split on how to manage the transition to a new democratic order. Though most appear sceptical about the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) remaining in power for long, some fear the country may need a second revolution to ensure a democratic transition. The demands of this second wave of revolt are uncertain, however.

The initial invitation circulating on Facebook for a new day of mass protest, scheduled for Friday, had as one of its first demands the formation of a presidential council. Although hundreds of thousands have agreed to join the 27 May second “Day of Rage,” not all agreed they would uphold this demand. While the January 25 Revolution demands were clear and enjoyed wide consensus, agreement on how the transitional period should proceed has proved more complicated.

Presidential council vs quick elections

The Muslim Brotherhood has taken the clearest stand against the creation of a presidential council to replace the ruling SCAF. They argue that what Egypt needs now are prompt elections. Others, however, are sceptical, saying the Brotherhood wants quick elections to ensure that, as the only organised political group, they are sure to sweep a majority of seats in parliament. Consequently, they argue, new political parties and groups need more time to organise prior to elections and that a presidential council should take over now.

However, how would any presidential council be chosen and who would choose it? The answer to this question creates even more splits amongst political groups. The process of forming such a body remains in dispute, with some of its opponents saying it could be subject to manipulation.

The Muslim Brotherhood Youth, for example, who chose to join the 27 May “Save the Revolution” Friday, despite the Brotherhood’s official boycott, say they oppose a presidential council but uphold other demands for Egypt’s transition period. Mohamed Osman, a Muslim Brotherhood and Youth Coalition member, says “we are of course against a presidential council. We think a presidential council is unrealistic and there is no way of choosing one with the consensus of all. We want the elections to take place as planned. We want a swift transitional period.”  

A short transitional period is a demand upheld by many, not just the Muslim Brotherhood. The liberal El-Adl Party (Justice Party), for example, is also calling for a brief transitional period and believes a presidential council would only cause more delay. Mostafa El-Naggar, one of the party’s founders, says “the Egyptian people are tired. They want stability back and therefore want this transitional period to end no matter what the end result will be. Talking about a presidential council is unrealistic now and although we were for it at first, we changed our stand because no consensus will be reached on this matter and the process of forming such a council is unclear.”

Other groups, however, are in favour of a presidential council. Most view the council as the quickest way to end the military’s rule.

Ending military rule

Rasha Azab, a member of one of the Popular Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, says “even though it may be difficult to reach a mechanism by which a presidential council could be consensually formed, it is still necessary for Egypt’s transitional period. One can at least criticise a civil presidential council but one cannot freely and easily criticise a military council.”

A statement issued by the Popular Committees, together with other groups such as the National Front for Justice and Democracy, calling for a presidential council objects to violations committed by the military, such as its violent reaction to demonstrations, sit-ins and strikes. These violent attacks by military police have led many to want a quick transfer of power to a civil institution.

Some also argue that a presidential council would provide civil rule without having to rush into elections that would probably pave the way for only major parties to win, given the current law. The SCAF has been severely criticised for passing laws that would affect the outcome of the elections, such as the new party law and political participation law, without engaging in dialogue and without the consensus of most political forces. Even those opposed to a presidential council generally agree that these new electoral laws do not guarantee free and fair elections.

Consequently, those in favour of the formation of a presidential council argue that it would allow time to postpone elections until a suitable legal and political environment is achieved, without having to maintain military rule. Groups supporting such a call include the April 6 Youth Movement, the Popular Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, the National Association for Change, the Maspero Revolutionaries (defending Coptic rights) and many others.

Osman, although a Brotherhood member, added: “It is a problem that the next elections will mainly benefit the Islamists and we have to think of a way to change that.” El-Naggar, on the other hand, says: “The postponement (of elections) would not reduce the power of the Muslim Brotherhood but will only give them time to get stronger.”

A new constitution: now or after elections?

Another point of disagreement is whether to draft a new constitution after the elections, as currently proposed, or before.

At the official national dialogue conference, interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf declared that he was in favour of drafting a new constitution before elections. After three days of meetings, the first round of the national dialogue ended with recommendations that parliamentary elections should be delayed due to security concerns.

The newly formed National Council, which was launched after the First Egypt National Conference, also proposed the drafting of a new constitution before elections, although not all agreed, including the Muslim Brotherhood Youth and several independent figures.

The paper submitted by Mamdouh Hamza on the day that council members were announced explicitly stated that the council should aim to formulate a constitution representing a “civil, democratic and modern state”. The council currently is comprised of 120 representatives from different parties, movements and organisations.

El-Naggar agrees that the constitution should uphold general principles, such as the establishment of a “civil democratic state”, but adds: “the new constitution drafted before the elections should be drafted by a council representing all political forces and by consensus. We are often accused of being undemocratic for defending the drafting of a constitution before an elected parliament is formed, and that is why we stress that it should be drafted by the consensus of different political forces.”

Others, however, argue that it would be undemocratic for a council that was not democratically elected to draft the new constitution. They say the constitution would be better written by members of a drafting committee chosen from a democratically elected parliament. In response, those in favour a presidential council argue that it would be undemocratic for the new constitution to be formulated according to who wins the majority of seats in parliament, as the new constitution should represent all political and social trends that make up Egyptian society.

Moreover, with electoral laws that only allow large parties to win elections, the new constitution would only represent those parties and not unorganised or minority groups. Ramy Kamal, member of the Maspero Revolutionaries, says “the committee to draft the constitution should represent all segments of society. The parliament will not necessarily represent the different groups in society if elections take place in the current legal and political environment when most groups are too unorganised to compete.”  

Changing oppressive laws and ending corruption

The demands that are almost universally favoured by the different political factions include rescinding several oppressive laws and guaranteeing the swift trial of former regime figures as proof that corruption is being addressed.

Most political groups oppose military trials for civilians, even if they do not actively engage in campaigns against it. Although the Muslim Brotherhood has been relatively uncritical of the SCAF’s actions in general, Osman explained, “We are defiantly against the double standards by which citizens are treated. Mubarak and former regime figures are facing civil trials while activists are facing military tribunals.”

The Law of Political Participation and the Political Parties Law are also highly criticised, first for being passed without a national vote and because they maintained previous restrictions on political freedom. Osman said that one of the main objections the Brotherhood Youth would put forward on 27 May targets the passage of such laws without consensus, while El-Naggar confirmed that his party had registered their objections with SCAF.

Putting an end to corruption is also another pressing demand, including the dismantling of local councils accused of embodying the “Mubarak era”. Osman says: “We are joining the 27 May "Day of Rage" because we oppose corruption, we believe the trial of ex-regime officials should proceed faster, we oppose the SCAF’s decision to pass the party law and the political participation law without engaging in a proper national dialogue and we oppose the absence of a police presence in the streets, which we believe is intentional. We (the Muslim Brotherhood) have the fewest demands since most others joining the 27 May protest are asking for a presidential council and a new constitution in addition to our demands.”

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