By Ernest Corea
Nobody said it was going to be easy. The transition from a military dictatorship of several decades to a democracy is never a straightforward out-in arrangement, as countries which attempted the change have realised. Egypt is now absorbing that lesson of political realism: Transition is tricky.
The difficulty has to be proportionately greater when the parties involved in managing the transition have very little real-life experience in coming to terms with the nuts and bolts of a system about which Churchill said: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
An added element of difficulty is that the situation involves such long-standing antagonists as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Security Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that helped move Mubarak out of office and has held both civilian and military power since then. It wielded substantial economic clout during the dictatorship and continues to do so.
The election of Mohammed Morsy as the country’s first elected president shows that the Brotherhood’s perseverance over the years despite harassment, including imprisonment, and alleged torture under the dictatorship has been recognized by the people. During those difficult, indeed, hazardous, years the Brotherhood solidified its support by providing community services to those who would otherwise have been neglected.
Morsy holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Southern California, and is chairman of the Freedom and Justice party, the political wing of the Brotherhood. On July 24, Morsy named Mohamed Qandil as the new Prime Minister. He holds a PhD in Irrigation from the University of North Carolina. He has served as a Senior Manager in the Asian Development Bank.
Whether this duo of Western-educated civilian politicians can hold their own against the junta is still to be tested. While working at establishing democracy, they will also have to confront the challenges of societal integration and economic revival. President Jimmy Carter, a long-time observer of Egyptian affairs, told the media that he expects the military to “retain some power, after meeting with the generals to discuss Egypt’s transformation.
That is the junta’s view, and it sounds ominous, because it goes against the spirit of Egypt’s renewal, setting the scene for debilitating confrontations. It also contradicts the principles and practices of democracy.
The 50 percent Election
Writing from Alexandria, Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and formerly World Bank Vice President for Environmentally and Socially Sustainable Development, strikes a more positive note. In an email exchange with this writer, he said: “Although participation was not as high (in the presidential election) as in the legislative elections, it was quite solid and Egypt has elected its first president ever! It is an exalting and exhilarating time, regardless of anyone’s political orientation.”
Serageldin described the presidential election runoff as both “wonderful and disturbing.” He said it was a “50 percent election.” “About 50 percent of the electorate voted and the votes were split between the two candidates almost 50-50! The 50 percent NOT participating is saying that people are getting tired of politics and is disenchanted with the elections. The 50 percent participating voters are more active in trying to defeat the other candidate than believing in their own candidate. The 50-50 split is telling us that the country is deeply divided. More deeply and evenly than anyone thought.
“The splits were complex. The 50-50 alignment represents both a revolution/non-revolution and an Islamist/anti-Islamist split. SCAF has exacerbated these divisions with its recent decisions. These have sparked fierce battles which were fought in the news media and with demonstrations in the streets. Will Egyptians remain peaceful? I believe so.”
Serageldin stressed that several very important points need to be noted lest they be lost in the drama of events:
Points worth Noting
“First, Egypt is peaceful. The demonstrations and the verbal battles on TV and the news media, both electronic and printed, are peaceful. There is remarkably little violence in a country of this size.
“Second: Egyptians tend to accept the rule of law and the judgment of the courts even when they are not happy with these judgments. They demonstrate (loudly but peacefully) but still they end up accepting them. That is very important. Examples abound: The disqualification of ten individuals from running for the presidency, three of whom would have been top contenders: The Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat El Shater, the Salafist Hazem Abu-Ismail, and the former Vice President of Mubarak, general Omar Suleiman who has since passed away.
“Also note that the Mubarak trial unfolded in a civilian court and the verdict was given by civilian judges and there is still room for appeal under the regular civilian process rules. This contrasts with the use of revolutionary courts in most revolutions when trying the former regime.
“Third: We have had peaceful elections. All the elections have tended to be very peaceful and orderly as well as transparent and monitored. Egyptians have shown that they can run free and fair elections and that they prefer to settle differences with ballots rather than bullets.
“All this is quite remarkable in the entire region. Only Tunisia has done as well if not better. Ah! But will that last? Will the demonstrations remain loud but peaceful? Will it end up with grudging acceptance of the final outcome of the democratic process?
“I think the latter. Egyptians are largely tired of the endless demonstrations and yearn for stability and a return to a growing economy. But with the stakes being so high, the issues being so complex and the country being so divided, there is no guarantee that this peaceful pattern will continue.
“We can only hope that it will be so. For we have much work to do. We must write our constitution and heal the divisions among our people as we rally to the cause of rebuilding our economy and fashioning the institutions and the laws of the new Egypt.”
Beside the political and constitutional challenges that Egypt must overcome, it needs as well to grapple with economic realities that lie at the heart of the Spring Awakening. The GDP growth rate is 1.6 percent, the inflation rate is 13.3 percent, the unemployment rate is 12 percent and 20 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
Moving from the Awakening to tangible results in the day-to-day lives of the people is going to be as important as developing the nation’s political and legal instruments. Neither will be easy.
The writer has served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon ‘Daily News’ and the Ceylon ‘Observer’, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore ‘Straits Times’. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.