Tuesday, July 05, 2011


By William Fisher

It should have been expected that the various groups who demonstrated in such a strong, unified position in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt would begin to show their differences after Mubarak resigned.

After all, they won! So what to do now?

Governing is a lot harder than demonstrating. And, besides, they weren’t the government; the army was.

During the Tahrir Square uprisings, the Army became the darlings of the protesters. They didn’t fire on the protesters. In fact, it was the Army who kept pro-Mubarak forces from physically attacking those who wanted him out.

Now the worm has turned once again. Crowds of full-throated critics of the Army are out in Tahrir Square again in large numbers.

They insist that the demonstrators arrested in previous demonstrations be tried in civilian, rather than military courts. They scream when they learn that the cops who are on trial for mishandling demonstrators have been freed on bail. They insist on an apology from the Ministry of Interior for their mismanagement of the security police during the demonstrations. They’re furious at the supreme military council for abusing prisoners taken into custody during the demonstrations and sentenced to substantial prison terms for what the opposition characterizes as “nothing.” And they’re equally up in arms about the “virginity tests” the military police administered to women taken into custody (the army now says it is discontinuing this practice.)

Then there’s the fierce battle about whether a new Constitution should be written before or after Parliamentary elections.

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace – one of the more perceptive of the Western think-tanks – has put the problem succinctly. She says that “there are other coalitions forming as well that for the most part pit non-Islamist parties against the (Muslim) Brotherhood in a struggle over constitution first (or at least electoral delay) versus elections first.”

She explains: “Constitution-firsters, mostly liberals and leftists, argue there is little sense in electing two houses of parliament and a president when the constitution to be written subsequently is likely to change the political system significantly enough to require all new elections within as little as a year. Behind their procedural argument is a fear that the FJP (the Freedom and Justice Party organized by the Muslim Brotherhood) will do well in parliamentary elections and thereby have the largest say in shaping the constitution.”

“Thirty-six different youth and political groups have joined the “Free Front for Peaceful Change” in backing a “Constitution First” campaign, which is seeking 15 million signatures to support a revised timetable. The coalition has threatened to bring a million protestors back into Tahrir Square on Friday, July 8 to protest, but the military leadership might still meet at least some of their demands before that,” she says.

Election-firsters, she continues, “led by the FJP, counter that a new constitution can only be legitimate if underpinned by elections; the current system mandates that the elected parliament choose a 100-member constituent assembly that would oversee the constitution’s writing, to be followed by a popular referendum on the document. They also argue that prioritizing constitution writing would violate the will of voters in the March 2011 referendum when three-quarters of voters supported constitutional amendments specifying the holding of parliamentary elections within six months.”

She concludes, “ Political forces in Egypt today face a dilemma: either proceed ahead expeditiously to elections in order to end the post-revolutionary rule of the military or slow down the electoral timetable and prioritize the writing of a new constitution. New political parties want more time to organize; parties, movements associated with the January revolution, and civil society groups are also pushing for guarantees concerning the content of the new constitution and the process by which it will be written.”

There are also a host of potentially central issues that must be resolved if they are to become part of the new Constitution. One of the most critical is the future role of the Army. This issue has been discussed in the series of meetings the ruling junta has held with the growing number of new political parties. The Supreme Council, which now rules Egypt, has made it clear that it wants to get out of the governance business as soon as possible. But conservative political interests are proposing that the military should continue to play a central role in the country’s affairs and that this role should be explicit in the new Constitution. The least threatening role has been likened to a referee, or to the last best option for resolving serious disputes.

But, in my view, this is a bad idea. The Supreme Council has already demonstrated that it is not skilled in governance. It does not wish to govern. Moreover, realistically, if the country ever finds itself in really calamitous trouble, the Army would be turned to, whether the arrangement was codified or not.

After all, the Generals who sit on the Supreme Council are Hosni Mubarak’s fellow officers. They all learned from the same teachers. And one of the things they learned particularly well is how to deal with dissent. Egypt has been there, done that. Today it needs a fresh start. And a fresh cast of characters.