The Army is pulling the strings but with little or no transparency
Anyone who’s ever renovated a house will tell you that the serious work begins when you’ve torn everything up and are willing to start from the foundations. Well, we had a revolution and we appear to have been busy trying to tear down as much of the house as possible. Heads have rolled (although only politically expedient ones). The latest victims of the post-revolutionary purges have been several state media heads who have found that a lifetime of practiced sycophancy is only effective as long as the powers that one grovels to remain intact.
However, the situation is now a delicate one. Especially since the reform process, as it were, is being conducted largely by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with little apparent recourse to anyone else.
Since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 1st, the army has been at pains to assure people that it has no interest in taking over the country and that it is keen on handing over power to a civilian government as soon as possible. To that end, it appears to have pushed through a series of amendments to the 1971 constitution, put in place by a committee that it had chosen—without recourse to external advisors—and put those amendments to a national referendum.
At no time did the Supreme Council offer a plan B: what was to happen if the amendments were to be rejected.
Egypt’s new opposition (which appears to consist of the old opposition minus the Muslim Brotherhood) lobbied hard for a “no” vote for the amendments. Cocooned as they often are in the warmth of the conviction of their own opinions, liberal opposition groups are often oblivious to the general public so the result— 77 percent of those who voted said “yes” to the amendments—was a cause of despair to some. However, three things should be borne in mind.
Firstly, the result was wholly expected. Among those who voted for the amendments were those who had been swayed into thinking that a “no” vote would mean a wholly secular state, those who had been told that it was their religious duty to vote for the amendments, and those who were tired of the uncertainty and wanted to get on with their lives. That block represents the bulk of the population.
The second matter to be borne in mind is that while the “yes” vote carried the day, many of the opposition’s fears have not crystallized. To the contrary.
Apparently, it transpires that the amendments were not so much amendments as blueprints; they went towards drafting a new constitutional decree that the Supreme Council released March 30th, 2011. The 1971 constitution, which had allegedly been suspended with Mubarak’s ouster, has actually been binned. In effect, the Army has agreed to a new constitution. Just as encouragingly, from the point of view of the opposition, parliamentary elections will be held before the presidential ones, which was a vital demand. The parliamentary elections will no longer be rushed through by July, they are likely to be held in autumn, possibly September, which means the presidential elections will be held end of year.
And according to the referendum, it is the newly elected parliament who will select 100 people to draft the new constitution. And it is likely that presidential powers are likely to be severely curtailed, with emphasis on judicial and parliamentary independence. In other words; greater accountability.
All in all, it is hardly a defeat for the opposition. A lifetime of practiced sycophancy is only effective as long as the powers that one grovels to remain intact.
However, the final matter to be borne in mind is an important one. The Army is pulling the strings but with little or no transparency. The constitutional amendment committee was selected by the Army, with no clear indication of the criteria. By not giving a scenario for what would happen if the amendments were not passed, the Army was essentially free to handle the results as it saw fit. And the burial of the 1971 constitution conveniently bypasses the fact that in the absence of a president, vice president and the speaker for a now defunct parliament, the head of the state would be the head of the constitutional court; not the army. The promulgation of the new law on political parties took most people by surprise since it’s uncertain who, if anyone, was consulted on its drafting.
This lack of transparency isn’t going to do the army any favours as far as trust is concerned. While it gained an enormous amount of respect and leeway during the events of the revolution, it is easy to fritter away moral capital if one fails to justify it. Egypt’s people have crossed a mental threshold, once crafted by 60 years of abuse, apathy and powerlessness. They need to have an active role in their presents and futures, a need to evolve from mere residents to citizens of a country, with right, duties and privileges. These needs have become overwhelming. It must be understood that people will die for such rights, that their children might live by them.
It is natural that an army would think in terms of orders to be issued and accepted. However, nations are not armies. And Egypt’s army is not merely a military institution, it is a major power player, a corporation with a turnover of an estimated 10-15 percent of the country’s GDP. And a budget that has never been questioned or even raised in parliament. Or at any time during discussions of a new constitution.
Transparency is an integral part of any successful democratic system. If the Army is to set itself up as this country’s savior, it must prove up the challenge by earning trust. If our future is being decided now, then we must be able to play a part. And for that to happen, we need to know the rules of the game.
Mirette F. Mabrouk is the Director of Communications at Economic Research Forum in Cairo, Egypt, and is a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.