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Helping Egypt’s ’Caretaker’ Generals Care for Democracy: View

October 10, 2011

Oct. 11 (Bloomberg) -- It’s probably not fair to hold a revolution to a strict schedule, but recent actions by Egypt’s military leaders to slow down the transition to democracy are worrisome nonetheless.

Last week, the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces said it planned to relinquish control to an elected president not next April, as expected, but probably in early 2013. In addition, several reversals of important freedoms have reinforced doubts about the caretaker regime.

On Sunday, those misgivings fueled the worst outbreak of violence in Egypt since February as Christians demonstrated in Cairo against an attack on a church, kicking off protests against the military council by Christians and Muslims alike. Two dozen people were killed in clashes with security forces.

While current signs are discomfiting, it’s too early to dismiss the military leaders as irredeemable. The generals have demonstrated they are susceptible to suasion from Egypt’s political parties. The U.S., with its enormous financial leverage, can also push for a more transparent transition process and an end to the repressive measures the Supreme Council has adopted.

Since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in February, some 50 political parties have formed across the ideological spectrum. These largely untested groups are scheduled to face off in November, in the first of three rounds of parliamentary elections ending next March.

The ruling generals, unfortunately, have made the competition less than straightforward. Notably, they have decreed that a third of the members of parliament will be elected as independents, rather than through party lists, wherein parties gain seats proportionate to the total number of votes they win. Holding those seats for individuals is considered by many Egyptians as a means of ensuring a prominent role for remnants of Mubarak’s now-disbanded National Democratic Party.

It could have been worse. Originally, the council wanted half of parliament elected as independents. But with a threat to boycott elections, a group of political parties persuaded the generals to dilute the measure. The politicians also got the generals to relent on a plan to wait until two months after the elections to seat parliament.

The political parties have not, however, succeeded in speeding up the Supreme Council’s timeline for leaving office. According to the new plan, the parliament has six months to elect a 100-member Constitutional Assembly, which then has six months to draft a new constitution. Only after the document is approved or rejected in a national referendum will presidential elections be held.

The political parties will probably continue to press for April presidential polls instead. Their urgency, as competitors, is understandable. In the grand scheme of things, though, it’s more important how Egypt is ruled in this transition period than who, exactly, sits in the president’s office through 2012. Accordingly, whether the U.S. supports moving up the presidential elections should depend in large part on the Supreme Council’s response to complaints about its turn toward authoritarianism.

The regime has imposed two dreaded Mubarak-era measures: It has brought back an emergency law, which gives authorities arbitrary powers over citizens, and it has embraced the practice of trying civilians in military courts. It also refuses to allow international observers or monitors to witness the elections. And it has declared dozens of political and human-rights organizations illegal, threatening to charge some with treason for working on behalf of “foreign agendas” because they receive financing from abroad. This is a preposterous accusation given that Egypt’s military receives more than $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid.

The political parties have asked the Supreme Council to reverse these oppressive moves; U.S. officials should second the motion.

It would also be a good time for Egypt’s Western allies to stress to the council that it is in the military’s self-interest to put Egypt on a reliable course. Foreign investment has shriveled by more than 90 percent. The Supreme Council has burned through a third of the country’s foreign-currency reserves. Though some $17.5 billion has been pledged in aid, little of it has been dispersed. With roughly a third of the economy under its control, the military has an enormous stake in restoring the confidence of investors and donors.

A public reminder from the Obama administration about which direction democracy needs to move in Egypt would be beneficial as well. Egyptians -- and their generals -- need to know that even when Tahrir Square is empty, the world has an eye on their country.

--Editors: Lisa Beyer, Tobin Harshaw

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To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.


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