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Saving Egypt's Third Democratic Transition

As Egyptians proceed with their third revolutionary transition, they might finally get it right if based on a broad national consensus and inclusivity.
Anti-Mursi protesters wave with their flags happily to a military helicopter passes over where protesters chant slogans in a square where anti-Mursi protesters gather for the third day in Alexandria, July 2, 2013. President Mohamed Mursi clung to office on Tuesday after rebuffing an army ultimatum to force a resolution to Egypt's political crisis, and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood sought to mass its supporters to defend him. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST) - RTX11A5Q

As many engage in extended analysis of the July 24 speech by Egypt’s army chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, and whether its main signal was that of strong intent on cracking down on growing violence around the country, of moving a step away from reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood and toward an even more substantial political role for the military or being predominantly an attempt to rally and recharge the pro-June 30 mood amid continued Brotherhood mobilization and national instability, perhaps it is time to take a fresh look at Egypt’s current transition.

Egypt’s first transition, following the 1952 revolution against the monarchy, did not go too well. Instead of creating a republican democracy, the military coup ushered in an era of political repression, single-party rule, state propaganda, and a powerful police state among other things. Nonetheless, most Egyptians tend to look fondly upon it because of the anti-poverty policies, soaring Arab nationalism, and bold foreign policy pushed by the charismatic coup leader and subsequent president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The second transition, which began in February 2011, suffered from a visionless process in which the powers and prerogatives of every political actor remained disputed throughout, eventually creating a defective new order that a large number of Egyptians, with good reason, refused to accept. Ultimately, it fell apart. The third transition must get it right.

To do so, one key question must be answered at the start: How should June 30, as a popular uprising (for a moment setting aside the military factor), eventually be entered in the history books? Should it be as a movement against the Muslim Brotherhood specifically, for its increasingly authoritarian tendencies and its astonishing mismanagement of the state? Perhaps as a reaction against political Islam as a whole? Alternatively, was it primarily a continuation of the 2011 revolution and the democratic and social ideals it represented?

The current answer being promulgated is essentially a combination of all the above. The distilled and relatively palatable version of it goes something like this: June 30 was an uprising to correct the ruined, post-January 25 transition by standing up to a creeping authoritarianism, as well as an expression of the substantial disillusionment with the Brotherhood-led experiment in blending religion and politics. If this is to be accepted as the truth, meaning that the goal is to establish a democratic and progressive Egypt, then everything in the transition must flow from that accordingly.

This would preclude an aggressive witchhunt against Brotherhood members and supporters. Their continued demonstrations, as long as they remain peaceful of course, must be respected and protected. Any transgressions by security members against such demonstrations must be admitted and legally dealt with, and any transgressions by Brotherhood and Mohammed Morsi supporters must also be fairly dealt with, following due process. Any legal cases brought against the Brotherhood and its supporters should be properly grounded in law, objectively and transparently investigated and (if needed) fairly and openly tried in court. The Brotherhood represents a sizeable, highly passionate and organized segment of Egypt. Politically excluding it would be, first, almost impossible, especially in today’s world, and second, nationally destabilizing. The current situation of Morsi and his aides is also unsustainable.

The military, which remains the effective center of power, must allow the space needed for the empowering of the new cabinet and permit it the independence to seriously take responsibility, in the public eye, for moving the country forward. There must also be clear signals that the new transitional administration represents not simply a switch of people in power, but rather a profound change in the political culture. The first key to this is absolute transparency in regard to the country's current situation, including events that have taken place, the direction of governance and actions going forward.

The second key is for the administration to engage Egyptians in a genuine (and detailed) national dialogue on how to “fix” the country, putting all issues on the table, from the economy to Nubian rights. This would instantly improve the national mood, give everyone a stake in the transition, help identify problems and solutions and also establish the political foundation and backing for tough and necessary reforms, to the extent allowed for an interim government.

The very same administration must begin tackling many of the archaic laws that have escaped reform. These include, for example, charges of insulting the presidency and state institutions. While the new cabinet has positively decided to abolish imprisonment as a potential punishment for insulting the presidency, failing to remove the charge altogether from the penal code only sends the message that this administration is actually about making the minimal gestures it deems necessary.

The current cabinet's composition is clearly a compromise between political pragmatism and aspirations. It lacks Islamists, the official reason due to their rejection of its legitimacy. It also lacks youth, the spark that ignited January 25 as well as June 30. Representation of Christians and women has been improved, but questionable and curious remnants from the Morsi administration — the ministers of electricity and interior, of all people — and widely denounced or lackluster former officials (e.g., the minister of antiquities) remain or have been resurrected. A shake-up will soon be needed to rectify omissions and certain inclusions.

The new administration must make it abundantly clear that the days of the Mubarak regime and what it represented are truly over, as many worry that Egypt will end up returning to a more evolved and polished version of pre-January 25. One area in which it can strongly send this message is police reform, something that never truly got the attention it needed after the revolution and still seems unlikely to be addressed in today's environment, especially given that many hail the police as heroes.

Media reform is another area in need of care. State-owned media must be freed of political influence, the body of media legislation dusted off and the much-anticipated new national media regulatory agency brought to life in a manner that inspires optimism. Furthermore, the Information Ministry can only be abolished. The new cabinet announced its intention to do so, but thus far has not. Morsi had retained the position of information minister during his time in power despite earlier promises to abolish it as well. The government will now also need to address the situation of the “suspended” Islamist channels. 

The length of the transition should not be stretched out for no good reason, and the steps taken must proceed briskly, but without compromising the quality of the output. Amendment of the constitution comes before everything else, despite some calls to the contrary. The new, ten-strong amendment committee, composed of members of the judiciary and legal experts, has already begun its work, and there have been voices calling for revisiting how its work can better be influenced by national stakeholders. Their proposed amendments must in the end represent a broad national consensus, making theirs a very difficult, but not impossible task.

The desire felt by some Egyptians to try to ignore the Islamists — especially the Salafis, led by the Al-Nour Party, which had officially backed the transitional road map — would both be destructive and somewhat reminiscent of what Morsi and the Brotherhood did in November, when they proceeded alone to draft the constitution. If consensus-based constitutional amendments pass with a powerful majority and respectable voter turnout, Egypt’s transition will have passed its most crucial foundational test. Among key constitutional reforms, such as legal underpinnings for civil liberties, the powers of the president should be further curtailed, to avoid room for autocracy, and stronger mechanisms included to keep the executive branch in check.

Thereafter, elections must take place as quickly, and as inclusively, as possible, and without an ultra-complex mechanism that people need weeks to grasp. One interesting and somewhat novel suggestion is that the first two presidential and parliamentary terms be for half their otherwise official terms. The idea here would be to allow for the calming of the current ultra-volatile national mood and impatience, as well as the gradual absorption of this condition through temporarily accelerated electoral cycles and to be able to adjust any unforeseen deficiencies in checks and balances.

The economy remains the number one concern of every Egyptian. The situation is incredibly critical, with the country worse off than it was a year ago. Many urgently need some sense of immediate relief and improvement in the national outlook. Many feel they cannot withstand the pressure much longer. Interim economic reforms might be required, but they should have sufficient consensus behind them. They will have to make macroeconomic sense will remaining mindful of the immediate impact on the lives of people. This is, admittedly, easier said than done.

On another note, an important factor in Egypt is that the presidency and the rest of the executive branch have a tendency to gradually lose touch with reality and public sentiment over time. The new administration must, at all cost, keep its finger on the national pulse. In addition to the critical role of a parliament in this regard, an institutionalization of professional polling, which faces numerous obstacles in Egypt, must someday become a new norm.

Of course, there are reasons to increasingly worry about where Egypt’s transition is headed and what it will ultimately produce. There is still time and space, however, for positive outcomes. Egypt really needs to get this one right.

Bassem Sabry is an Egyptian political writer and commentator. He could be found on twitter as @Bassem_Sabry.

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