Monday, February 21, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: The Remains of the Regime and New Triangulations

On speaking with Rashid and reading the news from Egypt, two major concerns are overshadowing all, even as some have become infatuated with the idea that the public voice has the ability to change the world.

These two major concerns are that the Regime remains in place and that the unity that made Egyptians one with the power to overthrow a government will disintegrate into political rivalries before they have achieved the final goal: Egypt ruled by the people through a democratic representative government.

In the midst of this is the Egyptian Military, ran by entrenched old men who have gained not only political power, but financial power at the head of a truly Military Industrial Complex. They are not likely to give up that power easily and are maneuvering to maintain it.

The first indication that these maneuvers take place is the appointing of new ministers from among the NDP opposition. Taking a page from the failed Bahrain government appeasement program, these appointments amount to powerless positions. Many of these appointments are from weak parties or opposition from within their own parties.

Mounir Abdl Nour, the head of the liberal Wafd party, accepted the position of Minister of Tourism. An excellent move in an attempt to insure the west continues to view Egypt as "liberal", at least for the tourists that need to pour in to fix Egypt's failing economy. Not a position that would lend towards much political or financial power.

The Deputy Prime Minister post appears to have gone to Dr. Yahia El Gamal (Coptic Christian?), described as a "constitutional scholar" from the Cairo University's School of Law and a member of the People's Assembly.

The other posts are explained more thoroughly here along with information about the "new" ministers' past relations with the regime. Many of them have already served as ministers in the Mubarek NDP regime and have various relations. El Gamal is noted as having served under the "Nasserite" government and is potentially the oldest minister ever. He is reported as "a leader" of El Baradei's National Association of Change coalition.

Included in this mess is the continuing of Shafik as the prime minister and Dr. Hani Sarie El Din as the minister of Commerce and Investment. While the last may alleviate some foreign investors concerns about continuing business in Egypt, it will also likely continue to give precedence to some of the NDP/Mubarek regime's favored businesses. Equally concerning is the appointment of a possible MB adherent, Ahmed Moussa, as Minister of education.

Gowdat Abdel-Khaleq, from the opposition party Tagammu, was appointed as Minister of Social Solidarity and Social Justice. Tagammu, also known as the National Progressive Unionist Party, is associated with the union and labor movements in Egypt that came out late and helped push the Jan25 revolution over the top by impacting Egypt's economic sector. However, the Tagammu party is quickly separating itself from the decision calling it "personal". Calling the situation as they see it, they are opposed to the formation of the new government because, to paraphrase, it stinks of the old government.

The Muslim Brotherhood was left out of the "reshuffle" of ministries. A spokesman for the MB (who had previously said they were not interested in political posts and were discussing setting up a separate political party now affirmed as the Justice and Freedom party) basically gave the same answer as Tagammu, claiming that the "new" appointments were anything but change and insisting that all of Mubarek's regime must go.

Left unfilled are the Minister of Defense, Minister of Interior and Minister of Finance. The Minister of Defense may remain the same as he is currently running the Supreme Military Council. The Minister of Interior and Finance will be extremely important. The Interior controls the state police and the electoral commission among two of the major issues that sparked the revolution. Concerns about police mistreatment and outright abuse of power are still driving many activists' concerns.

The Finance ministry has been under attack due to its control of business application, loans and banking, among many issues. Many Egyptians have blamed for the economic problems that have seen rising inflation, food costs, interest rates, severe regulations for small businesses as well as potentially limiting competition in favor of NDP related business. That is just the start.

The Ministry of Information, another source of angst among the revolutionaries, has been abolished. That is leaving the state run media scrambling to establish the rules and conditions of how it operates and reports.

In other unsettling news, the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice are said to be remaining at their posts. The last presents a troubling problem for the "New Egypt" as the Minister of Justice is considered one of Mubarek's henchmen and was responsible for handing down very harsh punishment to any accused opposition to the regime. To make matters worse and to continue to pick at the barely existing scab of Egyptian Unity, the courts have acquitted several of the accused in the Christmas Eve massacre of Coptic Christians.

In the meantime, the Constitutional Reform Committee, is working on revising or, more accurately, "reforming" the laws in order to allow more open elections in six months. The changes are expected to be announced on Tuesday. Sobhi Saleh, the only member of the MB and a noted jurist on the committee said that any total revision of the constitution would have to wait until "there were stable political institutions and established political forces to guide the process."

The many issues that need to be resolved include how a candidate gets approved for running in an election and how a party could be granted permission to form. Both processes required a run through the gauntlet of NDP controlled ministries, electoral commission and the People's Assembly. Of continuing concern is that, if this process is not completely thrown out, any party that obtains power would have the same control over politics in Egypt. In a nod to opening this process, the courts approved a new "moderate" Islamic party on Saturday.

The committee is also considering placing a two term limit on the president, but Saleh reported that a decision has not been made yet. That could be a problem for the young activists whose main concern was that they were not able to change their government. Further, it sounds like other political parties or groups are looking towards their future possibility of controlling the presidency and general government over a long period, much as the NDP. Otherwise, a term limit on the position would seem like a very simple and necessary move to insure rotation of the position and true representation of a polities' changing needs.

One of the major concerns of the more liberal activists, as reported by El Baradei in his Al Jazeera interview, is that the six month time period is not long enough for long disorganized, outlawed and unfunded liberal parties to from and participate fully in the elections. He does note that others are concerned that any longer time period might see the "revolution's" gains be completely eroded or anarchy begin to reign.

On the other hand, the Military Supreme Council's process for choosing committee members is not transparent and neither is the work of the committee itself. While the military has set up its own facebook page, it has done little to actually answer questions. Instead, Tantawi and others appear on state tv to pronounce their actions and then go on about their business. Re-enforcing the idea that many of the cabinet changes are only meant to look like they are complying even as the NDP (or whatever it will call itself in the future) retrenches and the military protects itself from the possibility of too much civilian rule.

In the meantime, as if to appease other "New Egypt" concerns and possibly to establish Egypt's independence from foreign pressure, the Military Supreme Council has announced that the Gaza border will be open "both ways" on Tuesday. In the past, the opening has been highly controlled and usually only one way, either to let travelers, food and supplies into Gaza or to let a select few out. This opening is said to be limited to 300 a day (probably to prevent overwhelming and uncontrolled migration into Egypt of Palestinians) and to be first focused on "high priority" persons such as patients, students and persons holding other country visas.

This is just days after the Council approved the passing of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal. Egypt and Iran are not necessarily on friendly terms, but as both a move to show independence from foreign governments and establish its own power in the region, it along with the Gaza border opening was a bold move.

The Supreme Military Council is also moving to show that it is heeding the people's concerns by taking several legal steps to freeze assets of 25 public figures to go along with the three former ministers currently under scrutiny for fraud, corruption and abuse of public money.

The question remains as to whether the general public will feel like all of these changes are enough to satisfy their concerns to allow certain aspects of regime business to continue "as usual".

In other news, various foreign governments and representatives are making their way to Egypt. Britain's Prime Minister Cameron arrived to meet with the Military Supreme Council and various opposition groups (not to include the Muslim Brotherhood). Ostensibly to insure that military rule was going to be transitioned to civilian rule. The US, obviously not willing to give the current Egyptian military government much approval, sent Under Secretary of State William Burns on a similar mission.

In the mean time, as predicted while discussing with Rashid, the various activist groups are gearing up to start their own parties along with multiple varieties of socialist, unionist and Islamist parties. Thirteen in all including, of course, a party of approximately 5000 recent former members of the NDP.

What this all seems to equate to is that the core of the old NDP, who says it is not disbanding, will remain in some substantial power for the time being even as it is weakened by mass resignations of members for new (weaker?) parties. The MB's new party will be the likely second runner up as MB members flock to support the political wing and everything else will be divided up between the multiple warring parties of socialists/labor, communists and various liberal parties. With the likelihood that, as in Iraq some five years ago, many of these parties will come and go, sifting away until what remains are the major Islamist and nationalist party with three or four other parties desperately trying to form a block in parliament to become either a coalition government or a principled opposition.

That's IF the remains of the old Regime and the new triangulations of the ruling Military regime don't conspire to limit the power of the people's democracy. At this point, it seems like they are going to give people and new parties the ability to run for the Assembly, to be part of their "government", but still hold on to all of the government power houses and money. The easiest way within a "democracy" to keep the people happy and the opposition under control.

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