Assistance for Egypt’s democratic transition is being held up by the military’s retention of power, a senior diplomat confided today, as the country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood denied that it helped secure the release of foreign activists accused in the authorities’ prosecution of pro-democracy groups.
There is a danger that the NGO case will prompt a backlash that jeopardizes “consistent, full-hearted American support for Arab democracy,” says a leading expert on post-Communist transitions.
International aid to support Egypt’s transition will start to flow as soon as the military transfer power to a civilian authority, says a senior British diplomat.
“Those programs are ready. The goodwill is there, the design is there, the money is there and I think as soon as we get a government that can take longer term decisions and begin engaging in a kind of five-year program, for example, then we can push the button and we can really help,” the official told Ahram Online.
A veteran politician close to the Brotherhood and the ruling military announced he would contest the May 23 presidential election.
But it is unclear whether Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will adopt Mansour Hassan, head of the advisory council to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and former minister for culture and information under President Anwar Sadat, as its presidential candidate.
“The details of my nomination will be announced in a news conference within two days,” he told Reuters:
He enjoys support from a number of political parties and may be officially endorsed by the Muslim Brotherhood’s powerful Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) that controls 51 percent of the seats of the upper and lower houses of parliament combined. In January, the FJP denied reports it had chosen Hassan as its preferred presidential candidate, and it is not likely to reveal who it is backing for some time.
As AP’s Hamza Hamdawi reports: A lineup of Islamists, retired generals, old regime figures and political newcomers are campaigning to become Egypt’s first president since Hosni Mubarak’s fall, but none of them may have the stature to tackle this nation’s enormous problems or stand up to the powerful military.
The ultraconservative Salafis in the Islamist Nour party are reportedly coordinating with the Brotherhood on an appropriately Islamic presidential candidate.
“He must be a believer in Islamic laws, but he doesn’t have to be an Islamist,” said party spokesman Yousseri Hamad.
The Brotherhood is emerging as the principal kingmaker in Egyptian politics, reports suggest.
“The Islamists boast the nation’s best capabilities to mobilize the masses, but that has been somewhat weakened,” says leading analyst Ammar Ali Hassan. “There is potential for a wide open race, but only if everyone plays by the rules.”
The Islamists’ strong showing in the elections for the constituent assembly and the Shura upper house has many liberal and secular activists feeling marginalized and worried about the trajectory of Egypt’s transition.
“We don’t know what to do. We either have candidates from the old regime or we have people who don’t share our principles,” said Mohamed Abou el-Ghar, co-founder of the Social Democratic Party. “I don’t think the public mood is entirely Islamic. People want to have a respectable personality, trustworthy and pious, but not necessarily an Islamist.”
After decades of authoritarian rule, the office of the president has acquired almost absolute powers, eclipsing those of the prime minister, the legislature and judiciary combined. Such extensive powers have given past presidents, such as Mubarak, license to impose their own personal will and convictions on the nation’s political and economic policies.
But Islamists are determined to curtail the president’s powers in the next constitution, giving more say in the running of the country to the legislature they now dominate. The parliament is supposed to choose an assembly to draft the new charter.
The Brotherhood-affiliated Freedom and Justice Party has denied that it helped ensure last week’s lifting of a travel ban on foreign nationals working for pro-democracy non-governmental organizations.
“We didn’t have anything to do with arresting or letting go of the NGO foreign workers and whatever was published that contradicts this is false,” the party’s Deputy Chairman Khairat al-Shater wrote on his Twitter account.
His denial came in response to a statement by U.S. Senator John McCain – chairman of the International Republican Institute, one of the NGOs targeted in the crackdown – in which he thanked the Brotherhood for its role in lifting the travel ban.
“Last week in Cairo, we had meetings with the speaker of Parliament and other newly elected parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, and with Field Marshal [Hussein] Tantawi and other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces,” he said. “These meetings reassured us that people of goodwill in both countries were working diligently to find a positive resolution to the recent crisis.”
The decision to lift the travel ban was described as a “catastrophe” by representatives of the Brotherhood, while the FJP-affiliated speaker of the parliament promised to “hold accountable those responsible for this crime.”
But the decision also drew criticism from liberal and secular figures, including political scientist and newly-elected MP Amr Hamzawy, who spoke of “crude intervention in the judicial system [causing] severe damage to the democratic process.”
The crackdown on civil society groups and apparent collusion between the military and the Brotherhood has highlighted the strength and resilience of Egypt’s illiberal forces and prompted fears of a religious authoritarianism emerging to replace the secular variant.
“At the public level things are degenerating from day to day,” an Egyptian liberal writes:
Getting rid of the president suddenly seems like a simple task as compared to the uprooting of the culture of dictatorship, which is firmly rooted not only in the government institutions but also in the public. This culture has become part of the prevailing culture over hundreds of years, as has corruption. Now the dictatorship and the corruption are blending with the religiosity and the religious movements, which are in control of every area of endeavor in the country and are building themselves up as the new National Democratic Party, thereby exacerbating the younger generation’s frustration.
Whatever the causes of the NGO crisis, it is imperative that reactions to the spat do not imperil “what Sam LaHood was trying to do in Cairo: promote the values and practices of liberal democracy,” writes Timothy Garton Ash:
In fact, one might almost argue that it’s the real, down-home working of American democracy which hinders consistent, full-hearted American support for Arab democracy. If so, that is both tragic and short-sighted. The long-term interests of both Israel and the United States will not be served by being faint-hearted or ambivalent in supporting what is still one of the most hopeful developments of our time.