The Middle East Channel

Egypt's transition imbroglio

The phrase "Egyptian transition process" has become tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month. More metaphorically, events have driven entire herds of elephants stampeding through every legal and constitutional loophole in Egypt's makeshift interim political system.

There are, to be sure, some rules. In the seven weeks following former President Hosni Mubarak's forced departure last year, a series of policy statements by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a set of constitutional amendments developed by an ad hoc committee appointed by the SCAF and approved in a referendum, and a "constitutional declaration" drafted secretly and proclaimed by the SCAF collectively laid out a set of procedures for rebuilding the Egyptian political order. Those procedures have largely been followed. But they have led Egypt into a state of complete confusion.

The combination of eccentric elements (such as the disqualification of anyone whose parents ever held foreign citizenship from the presidency) and unexpected gaps and omissions (such as the failure to specify any sequence of presidential elections and constitution writing or the silence on the ways in which the parliament was authorized to exercise oversight of the cabinet) scattered a series of landmines throughout the path. Making things worse was the way in which critical administering, governing, and adjudicating bodies were (or have come to be seen) as deeply interested or partisan actors -- the parliament as the arm of Islamists, the SCAF as wedded to a set of political and material interests, the State Council as willing to seize any opportunity to pursue its ambitious understanding of its judicial role, and even the presidential election commission as a body headed by the constitutional court's chief justice, a figure seen as close to the military and security establishment. And the postponement of critical questions -- security sector reform, for instance -- has aggravated matters still further. 

Yes, there are rules. But if the word "process" has any meaning left, it cannot be applied to Egyptian politics today. 

Perhaps "landmines" is the wrong explosive metaphor. Instead, since all of these problems were laid down a year ago, one might better turn to Anton Chekhov's advice to dramatists: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." The second act of Egypt's revolution consists not of a single gunshot, however. In the past few weeks, Egyptians have broken into the armory so heavily stocked a year ago and shot off all pistols at once.

So who hung all the pistols on Egypt's walls? Here is where the Chekovian metaphor breaks down because there is no playwright in sight. Nobody put the rich set of weapons there with any clear plot in mind, reigning speculation notwithstanding. But three parties seem to have done most of the work.

First, the eight-member committee that hurriedly drafted the constitutional amendments at the core of the "process" was very restricted in its focus and therefore developed proposals that left key questions unanswered. But while handpicked by the SCAF, it does not seem to have been doing the SCAF's bidding in any mechanical sense. In personal interviews I conducted, two members were very explicit (and consistent with each other) on the minimal guidance they received from Egypt's interim military rulers. There were certain articles they were asked to amend but not in any clear way; there were also a few other amendments that they offered at their own initiative.

Second, the revolutionary leaders were so elated last February by Mubarak's departure that they did not contest SCAF control for a considerable period. By all appearances, they really believed that the army and people were "one hand" until it was too late to dislodge the army from playing an overbearing role. When the revolutionaries finally developed a serious (and likely wise) proposal for an interim presidency council to rule the country instead of the SCAF, they pursued it in no coherent manner. And they coupled it with an attempt to delay elections on the explicit (and excessively honest) argument that the Islamists would likely do well as soon as Egyptians went to the polls. By seeking to delay voting on such blatantly partisan grounds, they contributed to a polarized situation (a contribution soon matched by the Islamists) which has made a more consensual approach virtually impossible.

Finally, the lion's share of responsibility lies with the SCAF's generals who pursued an approach that was politically and legally incoherent. It was not one that has always served their interests very well, but they have been powerless to change it (as was clearly demonstrated by the failure of an apparent -- and audacious -- attempt to parachute in some "supraconstitutional principles" serving the SCAF's vision last fall).

Hope for a transition to a more pluralist and democratic Egypt has certainly not died. Egypt's saving graces -- the fact that the gunfire is mostly metamorphic; the continued strength of its political institutions, however deeply corrupted and implicated many are; and the inability of any single political actor to dominate the country -- may still carry it through.

But the lack of any controlling process or authority may make Egypt's political actors feel a bit like they are not only living in a Chekhov drama or deafened by the volley at the OK Corral but also as if they are trapped in Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author."

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s top contenders appeal disqualification from presidential race

Egypt's top contenders appeal disqualification from presidential race

Egypt's top three contenders are fighting to appeal their disqualification from the first open presidential race since the rule of former President Hosni Mubarak. The move has increased tensions and accusations that Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is looking to maintain power, despite the proposed date of July 1 for a transition to civilian rule. Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief and vice-president, was presumably disqualified by the election commission for not securing enough signatures. The Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Khairat el-Stater, was blocked because of a prior conviction under the Mubarak regime, while the Salafist backed preacher, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, was barred for his mother's alleged American citizenship. Abu Ismail claimed charges of his mother's nationality question were fabricated by his opposition, and his supporters stormed the electoral commission headquarters. Suleiman has suspended his campaign, while he awaits a decision on his appeal. He would be allowed to run if he collects enough signatures in the coming days. Shater said his campaign would move ahead. The candidates have two days to appeal the disqualifications, and a final list will be released on April 26.

Syria

An advance team of up to six United Nations monitors arrived in Damascus to begin an observer mission to enforce the ceasefire and implement the six-point peace plan of U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan. On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council approved the deployment of up to 30 unarmed monitors in the first unanimously passed resolution on Syria since the beginning of the conflict 13 months ago. The mission may be expanded to 250 in another resolution that could come as early as Wednesday. The deployment has come amid increasing concerns that last week's ceasefire is failing to hold. The Syrian government has kept troops and tanks posted in urban and residential areas, defying Annan's six-point plan. Activists have reported a resurgence of heavy shelling in Homs at the rate of "one shell per minute." Conversely, SANA, Syria's state news agency, said a "terrorist group" attacked government forces in Idlib province claiming, "Since the announcement of an end to military operations, terrorist attacks have increased by dozens, causing a large loss of life."

Headlines  

Arguments & Analysis

Historic transition in Libya must not forget survivors of sexual violence, (Margot Wallstrom, Al Jazeera English)

The wide circulation of weapons does not mean that women feel safe; quite the contrary. From experience, we know that too often men in uniform carrying weapons use their power to abuse women and children. Preliminary findings from UN monitoring in Libya confirm that both women and men were subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence during the conflict. While women were abducted from their homes, from cars or from the streets and exposed to rape in places unknown to them, men were sodomised in prisons and in places of detention as a means to obtain intelligence. This serves as a reminder of the importance of including sexual violence in the list of possible human rights violations whenever war crimes are being investigated.

Hard talks on Iran (The Financial Times

Iran already faces a raft of energy and banking sanctions from the US and EU that are seriously undermining its economy. Iran also knows an Israeli attack this year cannot be ruled out. As a result, Iran's delegation arrived in Istanbul with a more constructive approach to talks than it has demonstrated in the past. Iran did not set impossible preconditions for future talks with its interlocutors -- the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China -- as it has before. Instead, Iran accepted that its nuclear programme should be the subject of more detailed discussions in Baghdad, where the group meets again in five weeks time.

Bahrain: Grand Prix Deicion Ignores Abuses, (Human Rights Watch)

The decision to go ahead with the Grand Prix on April 22, 2012, gives Bahrain's rulers the opportunity they are seeking to obscure the seriousness of the country's human rights situation, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision was announced on April 13 by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) and the Formula One Teams Association. As part of a major public relations campaign to clean up Bahrain's image following the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011, the Bahraini authorities have been lobbying to have the Bahrain Grand Prix reinstated in 2012. The event was cancelled in 2011 because of political unrest. Not only is the event expected to generate significant income, but it is also being used by the Bahraini authorities to support their claim that the political and human rights crisis in the country is over.

-- Mary Casey and Jennifer Parker

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