Is the Egyptian Spring Waning?

Courtesy of IRIN NEWS where a different title was deployed

Briefing: The Egyptian revolution undone?

Mohamad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has been declared the official winner of the first free Egyptian presidential elections. Cheers broke out both inside the briefing room and on Cairo’s Tahrir Square where protesters had been gathered since 22 June to protest what many had seen as a recent power grab by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)[ ]

The official results come amid a period of political uncertainty in Egypt and many observers see troubles ahead for the democratic transition.

How did the elections go?

The Carter Center – among the few foreign observer missions in the country – said in a statement [ ] that most of the polling process was relatively free and fair. However, access to the polling and especially to the tabulation process was quite limited or completely forbidden; and local observers faced severe restrictions. Similar results were released by the One World Centre (Markaz al-Alam al-Wahid), [ ] a local Egyptian NGO monitoring the elections.

According to the Carter Center, the bigger problem was with an electoral law which left many important issues unaddressed, allowing officials to come up with ad-hoc rulings. Lack of open access to voters’ lists fuelled suspicions of possible fraud by the authorities. The Carter Center went so far as to declare that they would not be willing to observe any future elections under similarly restricted conditions.

Over 800,000 votes were invalid. Overall voter turnout was 51 percent, with 26.4 million votes cast (50.95 million of Egypt’s 81 million population were registered to vote). In remote areas such as in the rural south of the country where voters had to travel long distances to the nearest polling stations, many did not vote. Where no transport to polling stations was provided the poor could not afford travel costs.

What powers will the new president have?

The powers of the new president will be limited. Just a week before the elections, the military leadership decreed several amendments [ ] to the constitution, effectively reducing the power of any independent president.

Furthermore, the Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court ruled on 14 June that the parliamentary elections earlier this year did not comply with the constitution and therefore ordered the dissolution of the new parliament, where Islamist parties held a strong majority. This effectively transferred legislative power to SCAF. The amendment also revived the defence council, a body charged with overseeing matters of national security. The president, while still part of the council, will only be one of five civilians, while the other 11 positions are to be filled by the military. Decisions will be taken by majority vote.

The president still retains the power to form a cabinet, except for the minister of defence, who will be the current head of SCAF, Field Marshal Tantawi.

The minister of the interior has also traditionally been supplied by the military and the security services – a practice most revolutionary groups want to see ended. Strong civilian control over the police and intelligence services was a core demand of the 2011 revolution.

With no parliament in place, the president and cabinet ministers will have authority to enact laws, though SCAF may wish to impose its will. The term of the presidency was set at four years in the interim constitution enacted last year. But in an interview with al-Jazeera, Sameh Ashour, a legal adviser to SCAF, suggested the term would only last until a new constitution is in place.

However, even with these limitations, the elections were of great symbolic value. They were the first free presidential elections in Egypt, and with parliament disbanded, the presidency is the only successful manifestation of the revolution so far.

What will happen with the constitution?

One of the major questions now facing Egypt is how the new constitution will be written. The second Constituent Assembly has just elected Egypt’s most senior judge, Tariq Ghariany, as its head, giving it a legitimacy that even the constitutional court might find hard to dispute.

In the last few weeks, political parties had struggled to agree on the composition of a committee tasked to draft a new constitution. The FJP attempt to elect mostly Islamist candidates to the committee was heavily criticized by other political groups as well as by the constitutional court which ruled the practice illegal. The Muslim Brotherhood has apologized, but through its amendments SCAF has now taken much greater control over the new Constituent Assembly.

In a very vague formulation, it has given itself the right to form a new Constituent Assembly if the current one faced problems fulfilling its mandate. If a new constitution contained an article which the president, the head of SCAF, the head of the constitutional court or a fifth of the assembly found to conflict with the goals of the revolution or with any principle of any of the previous constitutions, the Constituent Assembly could be ordered to change the article. If they failed to agree, a final decision would be taken by the constitutional court.

The Constituent Assembly also faces another dilemma: The body tasked with drafting a new constitution has been elected by the same parliament that the court has just declared unconstitutional. It is unclear if the former MPs can stay on or if they will have to be elected anew. In any case it makes the assembly vulnerable to legal proceedings.

Do the actions of the SCAF amount to a military coup?

Amr Darrag, chairman of the FJP in the district of Giza and member of the Constituent Assembly, told IRIN: “If you take all these steps together, you come up with a perfect coup.”

Amnesty International described the army’s decision to grant itself “unrestrained powers” as a threat to human rights, giving it (the army) the ability to reject any attempt by a Constituent Assembly to restrain the military and put it under civilian oversight – or to hold its forces accountable for human rights abuses.

“The army’s move highlights its determination to both remain above the law and to trample on the rule of law,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa in a statement. [ ]

Yasser Selmy, analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Egypt, told IRIN that the possibility of the Brotherhood controlling the presidency, parliament and partly also the Constituent Assembly would have been a step too far for the military.

Can we expect more instability in Egypt?

Even with the presidential race decided, uncertain times lie ahead in Egypt. But analysts such as Nathan Brown with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace doubt that major unrest would erupt again. The schedule of an orderly transition process had now been aborted, he said, but it was unlikely that the Muslim Brotherhood would take the fight back to the streets. Even with the curtailed powers of the presidency, the Brotherhood is likely to be too content with this position to start a major fight against SCAF: “It’s still a real price for them to preserve,” he said.

Questioned about what further steps the Brotherhood is planning, Hany al-Deeb, spokesperson for the movement abroad, told IRIN that both dialogue and legal proceedings would be the best choice. He said the Brotherhood was not looking for confrontation with SCAF but that every possible legal step would be taken to guarantee a civil government.

Morsi in his victory speech called for unity saying he was a president of all Egyptians. These remarks were mirrored by statements from al-Deeb who ruled out any secret deals with SCAF. He said mistakes had been made in the past, but that both party and movement would work for more unity with other revolutionary groups in the future.

Morsi is now faced with the huge task of getting the Egyptian economy under control. Job creation for the younger generation and reforming an ineffective subsidy system are his biggest challenges.

International pressure

The international community can have some leverage over SCAF: As long as the situation remains volatile, investors will be less willing to engage, and international donors, whose financial assistance is urgently needed, might refrain from taking on bigger obligations in the current climate of uncertainty.

Nick Whitney of the European Council on Foreign Relations suggested [ ] the European Union should withhold economic assistance from the Egyptian government. The ICG’s Selmy urged the international community “to emphasize that the democratic experiment in Egypt has to go all the way… Some kind of political stability has to take place in Egypt,” he said, “and that cannot take place as long as the rules of the game are so contested.”

The US State Department said any refusal by the generals to give up power could have an impact on the nature of Egypt’s relationship with the US, which gives the Egyptian military $3 billion in annual aid.

“There can be no going back on the democratic transition,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said at a daily press briefing on 18 June. [ ]



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