Post-Mubarak Egypt: Whose Transition Is It, Anyway?

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Suhaib Salem / Reuters

Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the parliament compound in Cairo on Feb. 10, 2011, while antigovernment demonstrations take place outside

Egypt's army, like all others, is not a democracy, and its generals are more accustomed to giving instructions than to negotiating their next move with those under their command. So it should have come as no surprise that on Tuesday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to which President Hosni Mubarak ceded power on Feb. 11, simply announced its plan for how a democratic transfer of power might be orchestrated. Well, not just a plan; the plan. The military has appointed a committee of eight jurists and political figures tasked with tweaking Egypt's constitution in order to enable a democratic election — and made clear that it expected the committee's work to be completed within 10 days. The revised constitution would be put to the vote in a referendum within two months, and the generals intend to hand over power to a new elected President and parliament by August.

The brisk martial pace of the planned transfer of power is hardly to everyone's taste. Some opposition figures have noted that the suppression of free political activity under Mubarak has left opposition groups woefully unorganized, let alone capable of fielding parties with the campaign machinery to contest an election. They warn that an early election would work to the advantage of established parties, like Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, which, despite being banned, has a massive nationwide organizational network. Leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei had urged that elections be held a year from now, and that constitutional and political changes be negotiated with the opposition.

But while the military has reached out to various opposition groups and met on Sunday with seven representatives of the youth movement at the heart of the democratic rebellion, they have shown no inclination to talk to ElBaradei. Indeed, youth activists present at the meeting urged the generals to meet with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, but reported that the military showed no interest in doing so. Instead, it is pressing ahead with a series of quick revisions to the constitution in order to enable a speedy election, leaving deeper constitutional changes to the next elected legislature.

The constitutional panel, headed by Tareq al-Bishri, a former judge known as an independent thinker with moderate Islamist leanings, includes Muslim Brotherhood appeals lawyer Sobhy Saleh, a former member of parliament and also one Coptic Christian jurist — but no women. Its brief is to change the six articles in the constitution that restrict free political activity and preclude a democratic and transparent electoral process, and to get that done within 10 days. So a thorough overhaul of the constitution is not on the cards before an election is held. One member of the committee told the Associated Press that the purpose of its changes is to allow the democratic election of a legislature that will revise the constitution.

Opposition groups had met on Monday in search of a unified position to present to the military rulers, but they had failed to reach any consensus. And that discord was evident in the widely varied response of opposition groups and leaders to the announcement. Some more liberal groups expressed disquiet at the composition of the committee and its limited brief. Human-rights activist Wael Abbas complained to Britain's Telegraph newspaper, "The army seems to have made some sort of deal with the Muslim Brotherhood." And Shadi el-Ghazali Harb, one of the youth activists who met with the generals, told the Financial Times afterward, "They want to go hastily to elections, but we believe the country is not ready." Some opposition groups want more time to allow for the emergence and consolidation of more political parties.

But other secular youth opposition elements, like the April 6 Youth Movement's Walid Rachid, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, were more optimistic about the military's intentions, taking encouragement from its plan to put constitutional changes to a referendum vote. The Brotherhood has also announced a decision to form a political party to seek representation in parliament — under Mubarak, some of its members were allowed limited participation in elections as individuals. But mindful of the need to maintain a broad front of democratically inclined groups and reassure Western powers, the Brotherhood has decided not to run its own candidate for President.

There is anxiety among opposition figures over the absence of a defined role in the military's transition plans for the civilian political movement that drove out Mubarak, but their own absence of organizational and strategic cohesion has allowed the generals to take the initiative.

The opposition coalition that brought down Mubarak is not only divided on political lines: there's also a cleavage of social class. Strikes continue to paralyze much of the Egyptian economy despite appeals from the military — and even from opposition figures like Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who personifies the Facebook aspect of the youth rebellion — to return to work. But many of the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who took to the streets to oust Mubarak were driven by economic despair. Even those lucky enough to have jobs face the growing squeeze of wages not keeping pace with inflation. Their circumstances and interests are very different from those of the middle-class Facebook generation, even if the two groups shared an interest in toppling Mubarak.

Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy points out that the current strike wave began long before the 18-day democracy uprising, even though no one was paying attention, and that the working-class Egyptians are not about to place their trust in the generals currently in charge, even if they are urged to do so by the middle-class activists. "These workers are not going home any time soon," he wrote in the Guardian. "They started striking because they couldn't feed their families any more. They have been emboldened by Mubarak's overthrowal, and cannot go back to their children and tell them that the army has promised to bring them food and their rights in I don't know how many months."

There's no quick fix for the grievances fueling the strikes. Nor currently is there a clear consensus on how best to proceed to build Egyptian democracy. The freedom that Egyptians appeared to win for themselves last Friday when Mubarak left town is likely to remain for some time — to borrow Donald Rumsfeld's memorable description of post-Saddam Iraq — messy.