Do the current negotiations between Egypt’s vice president and opposition factions signal the start of a democratic transition? Or are watching the latest case of authoritarian adaptation?
Following weekend talks with opposition groups, Vice President Omar Suleiman (left) offered to establish a committee to examine constitutional reforms that level the playing field for presidential elections and impose term limits on the presidency. He also pledged to eventually lift the state of emergency laws, to refrain from harassing anti-government protesters, to lift curbs on media freedom, and not to interfere with text messaging and Internet access.
But the concessions failed to reassure demonstrators demanding the immediate removal of President Hosni Mubarak.
“We are determined to press on until our number one demand is met,” said Khaled Abdul-Hameed, a representative of a new Coalition of the Youths of Egypt’s Revolution, formed to channel their demands to opposition and independent figures negotiating with the regime.
“The regime is retreating. It is making more concessions everyday,” he said.
But others are less convinced that the momentum is with the protesters.
The weekend’s talks appear to have caused a rift within the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, after its representatives accepted that Mubarak may need to remain in office for an interim period to initiate constitutional reform. The concession outraged secular protesters on Tahrir Square and prompted dissent from a leading Islamist.
“The Muslim Brotherhood went with a key condition that cannot be abandoned … [Mubarak] needs to step down in order to usher in a democratic phase,” Abdel Moneim Aboul Futuh told Al Jazeera. “If they were serious, the parliament would have been dissolved [and there would be] a presidential decree ending the emergency law.”
While some observers see the latest talks as a potentially promising development that could end the current impasse, others believe they reflect the regime’s success in provoking rifts within the opposition, co-opting rival elites and stifling demands for radical reform.
“Egypt’s democratic window has probably already closed,” Joshua Stacher argues in Foreign Affairs.
Mubarak’s intransigence and the military’s complicity in the status quo suggest that, despite the promised reforms, a protracted adjustment is under way to maintain the regime and defuse demands for democratization:
The Egyptian military leaders that are governing the country seem content to leave Mubarak in his place so Suleiman can act as the sitting president. Indeed, even leading government officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have begun to direct their concerns to Suleiman’s office. Hence, as the protesters in Tahrir Square — and the non-protesters facing empty refrigerators and wallets at home — have begun to feel the state’s squeeze, the regime has so far maintained its ability to control how the conflict is unfolding.
“There is no doubt that the post-Mubarak era is afoot, but it is not necessarily a democratic one,” writes Stacher, an Arab politics analyst at Kent State University.
Democracy advocates will not be reassured by Vice President Omar Suleiman’s remarks over the weekend in which he insisted that Egypt would not be ready for a change of regime until “the people here will have the culture of democracy.’’
He dismissed the idea that the current unrest reflected the socio-economic grievances and political aspiration of a largely secular movement, arguing that unspecified “other people’’ and “an Islamic current’’ were promoting an foreign agenda.
“It’s not their idea,’’ he said. “It comes from abroad.’’
Egypt’s opposition confronts at least two dilemmas familiar to analysts of earlier transitions: how to accommodate ruling elites without undermining democratic prospects, and whether to initiate a transition under existing constitutional provisions or start from scratch even if that entails unconstitutional or illegal actions.
“A transitional government should aim for inclusion, and should test the democratic commitment of dubious players rather than inadvertently induce them to become violent opponents,” writes Stanford University’s Larry Diamond.
A new democratic government needs a new constitution, but it can’t be drawn up too hastily. Meanwhile, some key provisions can be altered expeditiously, either by legislation, interim executive fiat or national consensus,” he writes.
Some opposition groups fear that a transition process under the current constitution will privilege the ruling NDP.
“The regime is using the constitution to defend itself,” said The Arabist blogger Issandr al-Amrani. “There’s a clear alternative: to suspend the constitution and do this outside the constitution entirely.”
But that’s easier said than done, notes Harvard’s Tarek Masoud. Paradoxically, prospects for an orderly transition will be better if Mubarak remains in office for a time to initiate a constitutionally sanctioned transition along these lines:
Mr. Mubarak dissolves Parliament, forcing a new election within 60 days (international observers would be required to make sure the election is fair). Once the new Parliament is seated, Mr. Mubarak resigns, and an acting president, probably the new Parliament’s speaker, takes charge until a new president is elected. The new Parliament would work around the clock to amend the Constitution in ways that would put Mr. Suleiman or any would-be strongman out of a job. The final step is a national referendum on the amendments.
There are compelling reasons to respect legality and to be inclusive in negotiating transition, especially in respecting the interests of the military, writes University of Washington law professor Clark Lombardi.
“Neither the Egyptians nor their many well-wishers and friends should want the result of this uprising to be a country in which a huge and powerful army has unwillingly been pushed aside, mistrusts the fledgling democratic regime and actively works behind the scenes at cross purposes with political leaders,” he writes. “Surely, one Pakistan is enough.”
But even if the regime agreed to an inclusive reform process, it will probably be able to outmaneuver an opposition disabled by the very diversity and lack of organization that have fed and sustained the protests.
“Egypt’s ‘revolution’….. has progressed so far precisely because it is so diffuse and decentralized. The regime can neither decapitate nor co-opt it,” writes George Washington University’s Nathan Brown. “But that strength can also be a real weakness when it comes time to strategize and coordinate in the face of a canny and cagey regime. ”