Pressure from protests in Cairo this week has made a noticeable dent in the military’s determination to stick to its previously announced transitional timeline, specifying the formation of a constituent assembly in March and a transfer of power to a civilian president through an election promised in June. In the presence of calls for a radically abbreviated transitional period with the presidential election process starting in February (a proposal widely dismissed as naïve and practically infeasible), the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is now considering concessions on the timeline and has asked its appointed civilian Advisory Council to weigh in on the possibility of shortening the transition.
On January 30, a member of the Advisory Council, Dr. Mona Makram-Ebeid, told me that members of the civilian body are amenable to moving the presidential election date up to May, “but no sooner.” Shortly after our interview, the Advisory Council was expected to convene for consultations with the SCAF, and Dr. Ebeid said she hopes the process “will be able to bring about a rapprochement, with compromise on both sides.”
Although the Advisory Council has been critiqued as a puppet of the SCAF designed to create the illusion of power-sharing with civilians, Dr. Makram-Ebeid’s reputation for integrity and independence has endeared her to protesters, who nominated her for their Council of Trustees of the Revolution last year. A former parliamentarian for the Wafd Party, Dr. Makram-Ebeid has earned the respect of the street, but is not afraid to push back on some of the more extreme revolutionary demands and “virulent attacks on the army” that she considers unrealistic, distasteful and potentially destructive. “The immediate transition that the street wants is not only impossible but catastrophic and unconstitutional,” she said.
But while she fears that the proposals put forward by protesters are “fraught with danger,” she was quick to acknowledge that their momentum and frustration cannot be dismissed. “At the same time, we can’t continue as if nothing has happened in the presence of the violent anger emanating from the street,” Dr. Makram-Ebeid said.
The “power of the street” demonstrated on January 25 last year was no surprise to Dr. Makram-Ebeid, who observed back in 2009 that popular protests were "increasingly becoming a force to contend with." Today, she believes protesters are wrong in their fear that Egypt’s democratic transition will fail unless the military leaves power now — as opposed to June. The pressure and scrutiny flowing from the street will ensure that “no one, not the military or any other power,” can monopolize the political process now. “The time of monopoly is finished,” she said.
Over the past week in Cairo, I saw firsthand the force of public opinion and vigilance described by Dr. Makram-Ebeid in my attempt to document the debates and disagreements over Egypt’s future constitutional framework, a mission that has taken me on a whirlwind tour from Tahrir Square to the Supreme Constitutional Court to shwarma stands. Prevailing wisdom may hold that constitutional development is the exclusive domain of the intelligentsia and political elite, and that citizens outside of these privileged circles have neither the interest nor knowledge to weigh in on philosophical debates over the values and structure of the new constitution. However, my conversations in Cairo this week thoroughly debunked that myth: Some of my taxi drivers this week spoke more passionately about the constitution than lawyers and constitutional scholars I interviewed.
The theme that dominated my six days in Cairo was the rapid spread of political awareness at all levels of Egyptian society, and its unknown – but undeniably significant – implications for the emerging pluralistic landscape. While not everyone was happy about continued protests in Tahrir Square, everyone acknowledges that the street cannot be ignored. The lingering demonstrations in Cairo are a deeply polarizing phenomenon: Some of my interviewees criticized the protesters as an economically malignant annoyance, while others glorified them as the engine of democratic reform and the gate-keepers of political legitimacy. But whatever the value judgment on the “Tweeps,” “kids,” or “revolutionaries,” – as they were variously labeled – it is clear that for better or worse, their opinions and initiatives continue to push the boundaries of public discourse and are contributing to the palpable spread of political consciousness across Egyptian society.
As Hisham Kassem, one of the great pioneers of Egyptian independent media, described the phenomenon to me, “In the past, Egypt was an apathetic population of 80 million people Egyptian who didn’t care: Now, we have 80 million opinions.” The challenge, Dr. Makram-Ebeid, will be to incorporate these diverse and oftentimes dissonant voices in the process of negotiating a new and democratic social contract without derailing the transition itself: “We are in a terribly volatile and very concerning situation, and I fear that all options are fraught with danger,” she said.
Cartoon Credit: al-Masry al-Youm