By International Crisis Group
The past several days have brought both hope and fear to Egypt. As Wednesday’s and Thursday’s tragic and wholly unacceptable events illustrate, risks of worse bloodletting continue to mount. The International Crisis Group calls on Egyptian authorities and members of the opposition to take urgent action to stop civil strife and resolve the political crisis.
There is no greater priority than ending the violence and preventing a slide into greater chaos. On Wednesday 2 February, according to Crisis Group and other eye-witnesses, a significant number of regime loyalists took to the streets and in some cases engaged in organized attacks against what had been peaceful protests. They were spoiling for a fight and they provoked one. The military stood by. It is perhaps the last public institution with broad national legitimacy and is likely to play a crucial role in ensuring a stable transition. Neither it nor Egypt can afford the military’s legitimacy to be tarnished. Egypt’s leadership should issue orders to all security forces, including the military, to act in a manner consistent with their responsibility to safeguard public order while protecting citizens’ legitimate rights to peaceful protest.
The second priority is for negotiations to begin between the authorities and a broadly inclusive umbrella group that pulls together representatives from all opposition political forces and respected independent figures. These negotiations should lead to the formation of an interim government of national unity comprising Egypt’s diverse political groups and independent figures, which would pave the way for free and fair elections later this year.
The third priority is for this government to undertake the extensive reforms – to the constitution, the elections law, and the political parties law – necessary to ensure that future elections are free and fair, that they are open to all candidates, that barriers to peaceful political participation are removed and that state interference with the media and communications ceases. The government also should replace the Emergency Law with legislation that conforms to international norms.
In recent days much of the focus has been on President Mubarak’s immediate resignation. Many throughout Egypt support the president and, fearful of the chaos that a precipitous end to his rule could usher in and of the dangerous effects of the current unrest, are content to see him remain in office until his term ends. The authorities, so far, have not suggested any willingness to concede on this point and have conditioned negotiations on an end to the protests. At the same time, the opposition refuses to enter any talks until the president goes and the violence against them stops; in this light, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Egypt’s peaceful transition while he remains in office. Overcoming this obstacle will be difficult and could well require flexibility on both sides. For now, however, the most important task is for security forces to live up to their responsibility and obligation to prevent any further loss of life or destruction of property while upholding Egyptians’ rights to peaceful protest.