News Analysis: Egypt between revolution and counter-revolution

Hani Shukrallah , Monday 7 Feb 2011

Five youth groups mandated the Committee of Wise Men to negotiate on their behalf, with both the old and the young rejecting the vice-president’s compromise suggestions

In Tahrir Sq, and among the various organized movements and bodies involved in the 25 January Revolution either directly, such as the youth movements, or indirectly, such as the so-called “Committee of Wise Men”, the general sentiment is one of disappointment and dismissal of yesterday’s proposals offered by Vice-President Omar Suleiman to “representatives” of political parties and other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yesterday witnessed an unprecedented meeting between members of the “wise men” committee – who call themselves “the dialogue committee”, and blame the media for the “wise men” designation – and the representatives of five youth movements which have played a significant role in triggering the uprising, and providing a measure of field leadership to the protesters, not just in Tahrir Sq, but around the country. These are: The 6 April Movement; the Campaign in Support of Baradei and Democracy; the Door-Knock Campaign, The Muslim Brotherhood Youth; and the Youth Movement of the Democratic Front Party.

The Committee, which is effectively led by the former head of the Human Rights Council, Kamal Abul-Magd, is made up of some 30 non-partisan public figures, including most prominently, Ambassador Nabil Al-Araby, a former judge on the International Court of Justice, and member of the board of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

The committee also includes prominent law professor, Yehia Al-Gamal, Ambassador Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former ambassador to the US, currently the Dean of the American University in Cairo’s School of Public Policy. It includes as well, Naguib Sawiris, a Copt and one of the country’s top businessmen, as well as Egypt’s top publisher, Ibrahim El-Moalem. Between Sawiris and El-Moalem, the committee effectively has influence on two Egyptian satellite TV stations, O TV, and On TV (Sawiris), and a daily newspaper, Al-Shorouk (El-Moalem), all three of which have not been shy about providing favorable coverage of the ongoing revolution.

Other members present a variety of public figures including a smattering of former government ministers, diplomats, academics, journalists, businessmen and prominent political activists. According to Abul-Magd, membership in the committee is subject to a number of criteria, including non-partisanship, personal integrity and public approval. Chuckling, he adds, “and a smiling face”.

In the course of their meeting with committee, the youth representatives said they had been called by the office of the vice-president and asked to join yesterday’s dialogue with various opposition forces. They declined, and said they decided they would rather have the “dialogue”, or “wise men” committee, negotiate on their behalf. They were very clear however that they were ceding nothing to the committee, but rather asking it to deliver their demands and report back to them on the course of negotiations. This was readily agreed to by the committee; Abul-Magd and others assured the youth representatives that they made no claims to speak in the name of the protesters in Tahrir sq or anywhere else in the country, but were merely trying to help facilitate the realization of the objectives of the 25 January Revolution, with which they are fully accord.

Representing the committee in the meeting with vice-president Suleiman were law El-Gamal and Sawiris. El-Gamal arrived at the committee’s ad hoc headquarters at the premises of Al-Shorouk daily newspaper, and briefed committee members and the youth representatives on the vice-president’s offers, which had been set down in a statement, later published as the outcome of an agreement between the government and the protesters representatives.

In separate meetings, both groupings wholly rejected the statement, which they described as a manifest attempt to circumvent the revolution and subvert its basic demands. Similar reactions were later declared by the protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere, as well as by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had won a newfound, if still de facto legitimacy by being invited to the dialogue.

As matters stand today, the protesters continue to insist that President Mubarak either resign, or delegate his powers to the vice-president, in accordance with Article 139 of the Constitution, and fade out of the political stage, possibly moving to his Sharm El-Sheikh residence, or traveling abroad for treatment.

No one in the revolution camp is buying the constitutional amendment argument raised by Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik. According to this argument, the relevant article of the constitution allows the president to give over all his powers to the vice president or the prime minister with two exceptions: declaring war, or amending the constitution.

There are two responses to this. One, which is supported by prominent businessman and opposition figure, Mamdouh Hamza, is that a constitution that has been approved and amended several times by rigged referendums is made null and void by the revolution. “The people are the only source of legitimacy, at the present moment,” he says, adding “and it’s all nonsense anyway, just a pretext like a whole series of other pretexts they’ve been hanging on, including stability, the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak’s dignity, and so on.” The UK, he went on, does not have a constitution, and “they don’t seem to have any problem operating a democratic system of government.”

Another response, which was suggested by some of the young activists, is that Mubarak should offer the people a whole “package” of measures, at one and the same time, thus dissolving both houses of parliament, call for the amendment of the constitution, and announcing the delegation of his powers to the vice-president.

Yet there remains the situation on the ground. There is among the protesters and their supporters a very strong feeling that the regime is basically playing for time. And that they are quite capable of reneging on all promises once the protest shows signs of exhaustion, and begins to dwindle. “We don’t have any guarantees that within a few weeks, or a couple of months, thousands will not be rounded up and thrown in concentration camps, accused of being agents of foreign powers. After all, they’re still talking about foreign agendas and “foreign fingers” in Tahrir sq.”

As such members of the committee and the youth representatives agreed that a number of urgent demands must be met immediately, if the negotiating process is allowed to go on. “These demands,” said one committee member, “could be implemented in an afternoon.”

They include: 1) Eliminating the state of emergency, in force for the past 30 years; 2) immediate release of all political prisoners, and prisoners of conscience; 3) immediate arrest and prosecution of NDP Oligarchs, officials and police officers and agents implicated in the “criminal” attacks on protesters (killing over 200 people and thousands of injured), and on public and private property, including the attempts to loot and burn the Egyptian museum. 4) Bring an immediate halt to all forms of incitement against the protesters, by state officials and the state owned media. And, finally 5) fire the minister of information, Anas El-Fiqi, and put Egyptian state TV under the oversight of an independent Board of Trustees.

The 25 January Revolution continues to possess a great deal of energy, as evidenced by the determination that is still to be seen in Tahrir sq. and around the country. Till when, is anybody’s guess. It all seems to depend on who blinks first, the protesters or President Mubarak’s obviously crumbling order.

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