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Egypt after Mubarak

Will democracy usher in in the post-Mubarak Egypt? Uncertain. This would be the honest answer. The future of Egypt depends entirely on the kind of events that would unfold in the coming weeks and months.

Aimed at bringing in some resemblance of order the military has announced a few critical decisions. First and foremost, it has dissolved the much despised and discredited parliament which was constituted after elections last December.  Even by the electoral standards set by Hosni Mubarak, notorious for his rigging, the elections were a sham.  Candidates affiliated with the proscribed Muslim Brotherhood, for example, were routed. Hence, dissolving the parliament would go some distance in pacifying the public anger.

Secondly, the higher military council promised to hold free and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections within six months. This would be novel not just in Egypt but also in the wider Arab world where the incumbent presidents not only win easily but often manage to ‘secure’ over 98 percent of the votes polled. The military also pledged to allow international observers to monitor these elections.

While suspending the constitution, the military pledged to amend the constitution and put it for popular referendum. While there are calls for drafting a temporary constitution, significant amendments are needed if the electoral process has to be opened up. The existing constitution is heavily loaded in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). With the dissolution of the parliament, how will constitutional amendments be made? And who will make them?

However, the issues are much larger. Until the ‘Farewell Friday’ it was relatively easier for a wide range of opponents to unify under a simple banner: Mubarak must go. Now that he is gone, what next? There are calls for the drafting of a new constitution which is reflective of the changed mood in Egypt. A temporary transition government with adequate civilian representation is another major demand of the protestors.

Scripting the course of events would not be that easy, especially when protesters have different agenda and views on the future of Egypt. However, certain general demands can be discerned; these include participatory democracy, greater transparency, civilian rule and good governance. Concretizing these demands in the form of institutional mechanism would be herculean.

The failure of Mubarak was not his prolonged rule, authoritarianism, excessive reliance on the security apparatus, suppressing dissent or rigged elections. He cannot even be faulted for wanting to install his son Gamal as his successor. Not just dictators, many democrats world over, including in India, aspire to keep political successions within the immediate family. So, Mubarak was not alone.

But Mubarak failed to read the mood of the public and the growing resentment and anger against his rule. Three decades of power and manipulated electoral victories transformed him into a Pharaoh, ancient ruler who has become the symbol hatred and scorn in modern Egypt. Far from taking swift and bold measures, he settled for minimalist crumbs. And they were too little too late.

With the result, the military which was Mubarak’s constituency changed sides; it settled for survival to loyalty. Mubarak’s last minute defiant speech not only undermined Egypt’s stability but also the interests of the military as an institution. Rather than serving the unpopular president, the military projected itself as the only institution that could prevent the country from plunging into anarchy and despair.

In post-Mubarak Egypt who is in control? Omar Suleiman who was appointed by Mubarak as Vice-President, Ahmed Shafik who was made Prime Minister or the Defence Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi? Who heads the military council? Who reports to whom? What would be the role of the army chief Lt. Gen. Sami Enan? Will the notorious and even omnipresent mukhabarat be reigned in? In the end who will emerge as the real leader?

More seriously, Egypt will have to build democratic institutions from below. Having been used to one-party rule for decades, the Egyptian public and leaders alike have to think, function and adapt differently. In some ways, Egyptian politics will have to set the clock back to 1952 when the Free Officers deposed King Farouk; not towards restoring monarchy but towards ushering in days of the nationalist struggle against foreign rule and build democracy.

The NDP which ruled Egypt since it was established by President Anwar Sadat in 1978, is discredited, leaderless and hence in disarray. Others like former head of the IAEA Mohammed ElBarderai are party-less leaders. Should Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa take a plunge, he will find it difficult to organize a political party before parliamentary elections are held. As things stand, the Muslims Brotherhood, long suppressed, proscribed and hounded by Mubarak, is the only political force which is organized and has grass root support to fight the parliament election. Not many fancy them capturing power. But, it is widely admitted that the Brotherhood would secure significant number of seats in a free and fair elections. This would make the Muslim Brotherhood the king maker in any future political setup in Egypt. No matter what.

The Egyptian upheaval and overthrow of Mubarak has caused concerns both within and outside the Middle East. Israel is especially worried over the future of its peace agreement with Egypt and the ability of the new regime to override domestic opposition and maintain regional peace. Will cold peace become hot war?

Many Arab rulers are equally afraid of the fallout of the Egyptian genie.  In a region which is littered with Mubarak-like dictators and even worse, Tahrir Square has become an inspiration to many Arabs who despise their corrupt and despotic rulers. There are rumbles in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan and Yemen.  The ruler of Bahrain has sought to ‘bribe’ his population by offering around $2,650 to each family. Continuing with the time-tested revolving-door policy of his father, King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his Prime Minister and appointed a new candidate. The Yemeni ruler pledged not to re-run for president in 2013. Though quieter, Syria is no safe either. While the economic disparity may not be acute as in Egypt, even Bashir al-Assad faces many problems that confronted Mubarak. Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was elated by the overthrow of Mubarak would not be immune to winds of change sweeping the Middle East. If the Egyptian can revolt against Pharaoh, can’t the Iranian rebel against the equally aging and dictatorial ‘Supreme Leader’?

Like many rulers around the world, President Barack Obama could not be decisive. His support for democracy has been hampered by hard-nosed national interest calculations. Even though his administration favoured an early exit of Mubarak, Washington is afraid of bringing about a regime change through external intervention. Hence the wobbling.  No matter what happens and how soon, one thing is for sure. The post-Mubarak Egypt will not be the same and his forced abdication will change the Middle East for ever. But for good or bad? Only time will judge.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy