Monday, February 07, 2011

The Challenge of Egyptian Freedom and Democracy

The challenges of instituting a true, representative democracy and any semblance of freedom in Egypt is being discussed by pundits and talking heads all over the net, including Egyptians who are on the ground.

What the hundreds of thousands of protesters in Egypt can agree on right now is that they do not want Hosni Mubarek as president, nor do they want the continuance of the current oppressive government. There are calls from the street for immediate new elections. Hopefully, free of fraud, intimidation or outright nullification.

At the same time, the Egyptian government is trying to negotiate a slower approach. They want Mubarek to stay at his post as president for the remainder of his term, which ends in September of 2011. For the NDP and the military, this is not out of love for Mubarek, but a desire to be able to shape the outcome, hold on to some power if they can and likely attempt to mitigate the power of other potential opponents. Specifically, the Muslim Brotherhood who must be considered the most organized and largest opponent. The opponent most likely to radically change Egyptian government, laws, culture and regional political landscape.

The United States' government is hoping for the same slower process. They no longer hope that Mubarek can hold on to power, but they also hope to reduce the potential power of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The majority of street protesters are not necessarily made up of the Muslim Brotherhood, but, in political terms, they are the most organized, they have established leadership, an established agenda and many members. They are also veterans of the Egyptian political system. Though the Brotherhood is banned by Egyptian law as a political party from floating candidates, they have participated by establishing "independent" candidates for parliament.

The rest of the "movements" involved have little organized political experience, relying heavily on ad hoc groups of similar minded people to come together spontaneously. They share ideas, but have little in the way of established leadership, established agendas or static membership. Some members of these movements may have participated in elections, developing and supporting candidates for election, but, for the most part, they are the simply a group of people that rejects the current regime and its oppression.

Many analysts and likely the US government, have come to the conclusion that the immediate removal of Mubarek and any new elections would be detrimental, not only to US interests, but to any nascent liberal democrats in Egypt hoping to gain a seat at the political table. The primary obstacle is that the current constitutional law says that, in the case of the resignation of the president or the dismissal of parliament, new elections would have to be held within 60 days.

Sixty days is not long enough for any ad hoc groups or smaller political parties (smaller than the NDP or the MB) to organize membership, find qualified, electable candidates or rally voter support for their election. Further, sixty days is not enough time to amend the current constitution to allow other parties or individuals to legally run for office. In short, if the elections were held within sixty days, the most likely outcome is that either the NDP would hold on to the office of president (possibly through a "rejectionist" member who promises changes, separates himself, at least, verbally, from the NDP, but is still in the NDPs pockets) or a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Ostensibly leaving any liberal, non-NDP out in the cold.

That is a likely scenario under the current Egyptian constitution.

Second, law is made by the Egyptian parliament that is currently stacked with NDP members. The likely mentality of the majority of these members is to hold on to power and mitigate any potential danger of probable prosecution and persecution should they fall out of power. They would be extremely slow in implementing any changes and most would likely be superficial. Particularly if a latent member of the NDP was elected as president who would direct those laws and rubber stamp them in the same hope of remaining the party in power.

There could be a number of NDP parliament members who splinter from the party or simply become internal opponents. Either based on their own estimation of how to survive the fall out or, as some might hope, as true citizens of Egypt looking out for their constituents as well as the best for Egypt as a whole. This could result in a loss of power for the NDP that would create another power vacuum. One that currently would be most easily filled by the MB.

Even worse, it could slow down any reform processes and constitute another crisis. One that could be uglier, more violent and definitely dangerous for Egypt and the region's stability.

Another worst case scenario is that a member of the MB becomes president while the NDP remains the controlling party in parliament. The natural adversity of these two parties could result in another crisis as parliament could seek to create obstacles or slow down any reforms to squash the president's power. Beyond that, the current constitution gives the president immense power. Powers that the new president, possibly an MB member, could use to suppress other smaller, less organized, more liberal groups.

In any case, another destabilizing crisis could occur and the liberal democrats could be marginalized or find themselves on the run from a new, oppressive government.

Another scenario would have parliament elections occurring directly after a new presidential election. New members of parliament would be tasked with setting up a committee to reform the constitution. Unfortunately, the two scenarios for president are also likely outcomes for immediate parliamentary elections with the NDP giving up seats to the MB while the liberals are left with only a handful of seats with little power to effect the outcome of any legal processes.

The NDP must be considered a still viable party because there is likely a majority of Egyptians who like the status quo or, more accurately, fear the instability and dangers of the Brotherhood's rule as well as unknown and untested liberals.

Any liberal minded individuals and groups are going to need time to get organized, put together their agenda, gain followers/membership and find viable candidates. The question must remain whether even the seven months leading to Mubarek's eventual end of term would be enough to develop that organization. Even more so, they would need extensive funding to even begin to compete with the funding the Brotherhood and NDP would receive.

Under the best case scenario, if freedom of speech and press are conceded, the liberals would have to find an outlet or build their own apparatus for disseminating their views. The state would still have their television, radio and newspaper outlets, the MB already has some apparatus in place and would likely be able to quickly spin up their own television news and various shows to spread their ideas. The liberals cannot rely on only the internet. Not everyone has the internet and the groups' ideas need a much wider acceptance.

Who will step forward to open a liberal or even "unbiased" program that would gain immediate and wide spread trust that could allow liberal ideas to be expressed? Who will fund it?

In truth, the liberals would be hard pressed to even get their views accepted by using outside news organizations since people may see this as "outside" or "foreign" influence on the organization. The liberal movements need some wealthy Egyptian benefactors as well as begin to organize their own potential followers for fund raising very quickly.

Time, though, may not be on the side of the protesters at all. Aside from the potential fallout of organized, self interested parties using the people power on the streets to push their own agenda and gain power, the current regime and ruling party may be able wait out their demands, give them superficial changes and wait for the over arching fatigue to turn public opinion against them.

The protesters seem to acknowledge this, but their one hope may be not only to demand the departure of Mubarek, but the dissolution of parliament as well. They could even demand throwing out the constitution to create an entirely knew one. In which case, an immediate and devastating power vacuum could appear. In which case, the unity of the protesters would begin to splinter and self interested groups would attempt to gain immediate power.

Even if the protesters could agree to establish a constitutional committee, power would still be based on money and membership. Further, the NDP is not going to go without a fight. The MB would fight hard to establish Shariah more firmly in the constitution and any legality of future laws. Keeping in mind that shariah is currently the basis of Egyptian law, but other secular laws guide other aspects of life including finance, religion (in limited terms), social laws (like the sale of alcohol in certain locations).

Even under the best case scenario where the liberals get time, funding, establishing candidates, become organized, find leadership and get a decent seat at the constitutional table, they are going to be hard pressed to keep the MB from pressing stricter shariah law on the constitution instead of gaining separation of "mosque and state". Not without joining forces with the diminished NDP. A move that could allow the MB to use it in the next election, alliance with the old oppressors, to force the liberals out or leverage more concessions in the reformation.

In all scenarios, it is difficult to see how any liberal Egyptians could gain enough power to move Egypt towards a truly free, democratic state. That is the greatest fear of the United States, Israel and other free nations.

Unless, of course, the "youth movements" of truly liberal minded people are as big as they believe they are and have true power of the masses. They could have immediate effect as long as the power still appears on the street keeping in mind that the MB will use their agenda for their own. However, that power could be used by the liberals to leverage concessions even from the MB.

The liberals need to establish their voice. Now. They need an agenda. Now. They need leadership, out front and in front of the media. Now. They need to show Egyptian people and outside nations that they are a force for good and a power to be reckoned with.

Mubarek's Resignation Could Hamper Transition

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