The history of revolutions indicates that transfers of power occur when the ancien regime loses the will or capacity to govern and the opposition has the coherence, organization and leadership to move into power.
Like any threatened order, Egypt’s government is using protracted negotiations to divide and rule. But the opposition’s principal weaknesses – the lack of a coherent set of demands and a clear strategy for moving to a transition process – are largely self-inflicted wounds.
Even inside Tahrir, the various secular, leftist and Islamist factions are colonizing separate sections of the square and articulating their own sectarian demands.
“Everybody here is organizing,” said publisher Hisham Kassem, “but there’s nobody to negotiate with. We have no control over the square, and they don’t either.”
In the absence of any cohesive organization or other forms of political discipline within the protestors’ ranks, there are no clear lines of communication to those trying to negotiate a way forward. While groups like the Council of the Wise do not claim to be representative of the movement, their credibility with government counterparts risks being undermined in the absence of some form of deliberative forum or mechanism for agreeing a set of shared demands.
The political party representatives, ‘Wise Men’ and independent figures negotiating with Suleiman “are all completely irrelevant,” claims Kassem. “The people in Tahrir Square wouldn’t recognize them, or else would barely give them the time of day.”
Some factions claim that the negotiators are misreading the mood of the protesters and underestimating the pressures on the regime.
“There is a sea of anger on the streets calling for Mubarak’s resignation and it can’t be ignored. The people at that table are talking in a vacuum,” said Abdel Haleem Qandeel, a leader of the Kefaya opposition group. “This is a revolt that is being played out live on air, this puts a lot of pressure on Suleiman to play it carefully.”
But other opposition voices are pushing a more strategic line, cautioning that it is the demand for Mubarak’s immediate resignation that is more likely to perpetuate the regime.
“It would be a disaster to have presidential elections under the current constitution,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Mubarak’s ouster would trigger presidential elections within 60 days, but current provisions effectively rule out a serious challenge to the ruling National Democratic Party’s candidate.
Reformists, including the Council of the Wise, are pushing a middle way, allowing Mubarak to remain for an interim period in which he would initiate constitutional amendments, delegate authority and allow the formation of a broad-based transitional government.
While many protesters dismiss the constitutional proposals as a capitulation to the regime, Bahgat defends them as en essential next step.
“What we have achieved so far is tremendous,” he said. “But at some point we have to get from the demonstrations into a transition to democracy.”
But some analysts contend that such constitutional niceties will only lead to genuine democratization if the regime is serious about ceding power and that is far from clear.
There may be an “ingenious constitutional solution” to the political impasse, says Nathan Brown, a senior associate for the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment, but only if the government is sincere.
“If there are real negotiations, they would be critically important,” Brown said. “But I don’t think they are.”
As Nic van der Walle noted on this blog yesterday, the experience of previous transitions suggests that democrats may initially need to share power with remnants of the old guard. But there comes a point when the insurgent opposition starts to move from protest to politics, from conflict to compromise.
Such developments tend to demand a degree of political cohesion and organization that Egypt’s fractious opposition has yet to develop.
Google executive Wael Ghonim has been chosen to head a politically diverse committee of revolutionary youth which aims to channel the views of the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. The group also includes representatives of the April 6 Movement, the Popular Campaign to Support Elbaradei, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Algabha Liberal Party, Youth for Justice and Freedom, and several independents.
The initiative may give a coherent voice for the young demonstrators, but the opposition’s problems run deeper. As one analysis notes:
The danger facing the democratic rebellion is that it lacks a clear consensus on terms for a political transition. The protesters in the square on Monday appointed a joint command to speak for them in the coming days, but they have their work cut out for them in achieving consensus with the established opposition movements and in winning support for their views in the wider society.
Whatever form the next stage takes, the legacy of the unrest will include a new social contract between citizen and state, says Nawal el-Saadawi, Egypt’s leading feminist.
Similarly, writes Fouad Ajami, Arabs are out making and claiming their own history, requiring a reassessment of the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that animates the “realist” elevation stability over liberty and interests over ideals.