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Egypt’s Turbulent Road To Democracy: Challenges For US Policy – Analysis


By Charles W. Dunne


The thousands that filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square, once again, on July 8 were not demanding the downfall of a regime. They were, instead, standing up for the promise of a revolution that they fear has gone badly wrong. They were there to demand that the country’s military rulers honor their vows to effect a transition to genuine democracy, with all that entails—not just free and fair elections, although those remain in doubt—but justice for those victimized and killed by the security forces during the revolution, legal accountability for figures of the Mubarak regime accused of serious crimes, and transparent governance by the military on the road to democracy. There is a sense in Egypt that the gains of the revolution may be slipping away, and the political process is in danger of failing. These concerns are far from unwarranted.

Failures of the Judicial Process

The widespread perception among Egyptians is that judicial processes have failed to address the abuses of the Mubarak regime while being wielded like a club to stifle political dissent. Only one police officer has been convicted (in absentia) of killing a demonstrator—in a revolution that saw over 850 dead at the hands of government security forces and pro-regime thugs. The trials of police officers and other former officials (including former Interior Minister Habib Adly, whose ministry was in charge of internal security) have been postponed. Other security officers have been set free on bail. Meanwhile, the judgment in the case of Khaled Said, the Alexandria man whose beating death by police in June 2010 helped touch off the events that led to Mubarak’s downfall in February, has been put off, once more, this time until September 24. While Egypt’s ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been slow to punish security force malefactors, it has, by its own estimate, subjected 7,000 civilians to military trials since Mubarak left office. These speedy trials violate citizens’ right to due process and fail to adhere to rule of law. SCAF also continues to hold political prisoners and has not conducted promised retrials for those falsely convicted in military courts. Frustration over the apparent judicial inertia led to clashes in Tahrir Square on June 28, in which over 1,100 protesters were injured.

Military Missteps

A larger problem is the lack of transparency and evident high-handedness of military decision-making. While the SCAF has opened up some political space for public debate and discussion, and issued over 65 communiqués on issues of public policy, few of these shed any light on the military’s deliberative processes and have left many important questions unaddressed. The SCAF has persistently chipped away at the authority of the civil government and prime minister, and largely excluded youth activists and emerging political elites from consultations.

Among other things, this has left planning for parliamentary elections in limbo. The military announced July 13 that elections will be pushed back until October or November, with elements of the electoral process beginning in September, the month previously scheduled for parliamentary elections and the beginning of the military’s handover of power to a civilian government. This is a welcome development, but even so, little time remains to complete all the tasks necessary to ensure a smooth electoral process. These include several major elements such as passage of a new law governing the selection of The People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s Parliament; establishment of the high committee that will issue election regulations; registering candidates; and allowing at least a month for campaigning, in addition to the period required to conduct the elections in the planned three stages. Even with the best of intentions on the part of the SCAF, the Egyptian electoral process risks heading for a train wreck.

Far from addressing the public’s growing list of grievances, Egypt’s military authorities have increasingly relied upon time-worn strategies to repress and delegitimize them. Bloggers and others criticizing the military have been arrested and foreign forces have been blamed for lingering unrest. The SCAF recently reinstated the Mubarak-era Ministry of Information, a move attacked by the Egyptian Committee to Protect Journalists as a major setback for press freedom. Public criticism of the military remains out-of-bounds. A speech by Deputy Defense Minister General Mohsen al-Fangary on July 12, in which he warned against attempts to “hijack” the military’s authority and accused protesters of harming Egypt’s interests, was widely interpreted as threatening in tone and provoked considerable public outrage.


Reviving the Revolution

All this has left many Egyptians with the sense that the only way to get the SCAF to pay attention is by flooding Tahrir Square with protesters, potentially setting up a bloody confrontation with the authorities. The 25 January Revolution Youth Coalition has called for Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to resign and join the protesters there, condemning the SCAF’s unilateral ruling style and terming Sharaf the dispensable “face of a shallow democracy,” according to the Egyptian English-language daily Masry al-Youm. Another activist group, the Union of Revolutionary Youth, called for a “Final Warning Friday” demonstration in Tahrir on July 15 to add to the pressure on the military government. Tens of thousands showed up, supported by demonstrators in several other Egyptian cities.

In response to the latest round of protests, the SCAF has promised to allow the Prime Minister a major cabinet reshuffle, including within the Interior Ministry; 669 senior police officers were dismissed July 13, 37 of whom will face trial for killing protesters, according to Egyptian state television. It has also announced formation of a committee to prepare a set of principles for the content and the drafting process of the upcoming constitution. These are steps in the right direction, but are unlikely by themselves to address the protesters’ core demands, effectively address key issues such as transitional justice and electoral reforms, and open up the military’s secretive ruling style.

Policy Recommendations for the US Government

The increasingly tenuous political situation in Egypt and the growing threat of repression and human rights violations present significant policy challenges for the United States. Without high-level attention from Washington, Egypt’s transition to democracy is in danger of running off the rails. The Obama Administration should move quickly to address a number of issues in its ongoing conversation with the Egyptian government.

  • Justice and accountability. The Administration should make clear in its public statements and private contacts with the Egyptian military and civil authorities that the slow pace of trials for those accused of killing demonstrators should be accelerated, and that the SCAF should honor its pledges for the transparent and even-handed pursuit of justice. The release of political prisoners should also be a key element in this discussion.
  • Elections. The US should support postponement of the elections, which will help ensure more time to organize the process, train election personnel, and consult broadly with parties and other stakeholders, all of which will ultimately yield results more likely to be seen as free and fair. The United States should offer extensive technical assistance, in coordination with the European Union, to help Egyptian authorities devise electoral rules that will afford all parties and politicians a level playing field. The US should also demand that the government allow international and local observers at polling places nationwide, and ensure an atmosphere of security and respect for human rights in the run-up to and during the conduct of elections. This should include abolition of the hated Emergency Law, which restricts freedom of assembly and allows arrests and indefinite detention without charge on broad security grounds.
  • Enlarging the political tent. The United States should press the Egyptian government to consult more widely with civil society, political activists, emerging parties, and other interested groups. Their advice can be invaluable and the fact of consultations alone can invest these groups in the success of the political process. Unfortunately, Egypt appears headed in the opposite direction. In a statement issued July 13, Fayza Aboul Naga, the Minister of International Cooperation, announced that the justice ministry had been asked to investigate foreign funding for Egyptian NGOs, and rejected such funding as interference in Egypt’s internal affairs. Such attitudes, so far unchecked by the SCAF or the government, are clearly unhelpful to Egyptian civil society and likely to inhibit the NGO community in its dealings with Egyptian authorities while complicating provision of badly-needed international assistance to capable Egyptian partners. The Administration must clarify its position on this issue and urge the government to liberalize old policies with regard to NGO activities and funding, rather than the reverse.
  • Freedom of Expression. Washington should insist the SCAF do more to ensure freedom of expression in this critical period, not only for ordinary citizens but for the traditional media and newer social media as well. This not only has been one of the key demands of protesters, but addressing this in the right way will allow for a more informed Egyptian citizenry in this pre-election period and ensure a fair hearing for all in the marketplace of ideas. Free elections cannot occur in a climate in which freedom of speech is not respected.

Many of the Egyptians who joined the latest demonstrations in the heart of Cairo expressed the conviction that they left Tahrir Square too early and celebrated too soon. The Egyptian government has a great responsibility to ensure that the ideals of the revolution are not snuffed out, and that mass confrontations between Egypt’s citizens and their temporary government will not be the only means of advancing political freedom. The United States, as Egypt’s most important foreign patron, shares this responsibility. It must act quickly to help the Egyptian authorities regain their footing and keep the democratic transition on track.

This article was first published by Freedom House on July 18, 2011.

Charles W. Dunne is the Senior Program Manager for the Middle East and North Africa at Freedom House and a Scholar at the Middle East Institute. Assertions and opinions in this Policy Insight are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

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