The Greatest Dangers Facing Egypt in 2012

Egypt

Fast away the old year passes … not so with the demonstrations in Egypt.  The increasingly heated and diverse anti-military demonstrations in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities are not likely to end soon because they express grievances that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has consistently refused to address and that are too important for demonstrators to give up on.

There are two main issues motivating demonstrators:

  • Fear that the military will cling to power.  The SCAF has assiduously refused to bring credible civilians into decision making about the shape and timing of the political transition, leading to widespread—and understandable—doubts about whether and when the military will turn over authority to elected civilians.  The SCAF has rejected one proposal after another for a joint military-civilian presidential council, government of national salvation, etc.  The prime ministers the SCAF has appointed so far have either been incapable of executing their duties (Ahmad Shafiq), failures because the SCAF denied them authority (Essam Sharaf), or clueless relics of a bygone era in Egyptian politics (Kamal Ganzouri).  Mohammed ElBaradei reportedly was willing to take the job, but only if he was given real authority, which the SCAF of course refused, knowing that ElBaradei would less malleable than the others.  The SCAF also badly mishandled calls for some sort of pre-constitutional bill of rights, twisting it to serve the military’s desire to institute lack of civilian oversight of the military in the constitution. 

  • Escalating human rights abuses—and demands for accountability.  The military’s ham-handedness in politics is surpassed only by the crudeness of the force used against demonstrators that have been peaceful for the most part.  Subjecting over 10,000 civilians to military trial, dropping cement blocks onto the heads of demonstrators from the roofs of government buildings, stripping women protestors or submitting them to virginity tests—such measures were unheard of even in the days of Mubarak.  But these are not the days of Mubarak, and Egyptians who have tasted a bit of empowerment are not going to stop pressing for accountability for those in the military, military police, and internal security who have killed demonstrators or given the order to do so.   The SCAF keeps promising investigations and prosecutions but not delivering them.

Concerns for 2012

Elections for the People’s Assembly will continue into early January, but they are playing out against an increasingly troubled background of a transition that might be failing.  Here are some of the top challenges I worry about for the first half of 2012:

  • An economic crisis that brings down the whole house of cards.  The SCAF-led transitional government is burning through reserves at such a rate that they will hit bottom in less than six months.  Domestic and foreign capital is fleeing.  Tourism is way down and is not coming back until security conditions and the political transition are on a firmer footing.  The SCAF made an enormous mistake turning IMF and World Bank assistance away six months ago—rejecting what could have been a comfortable fiscal cushion–and apparently has not gotten back on track with them yet. The Egyptian pound is falling steadily and inflation is in the double digits.  If the pound really begins to tank and inflation moves up into the triple digits and even beyond, the economic crisis will hit every Egyptian and could cause widespread panic and anger at the SCAF and transitional government, with unpredictable political consequences.  If the Egyptian government does not get help soon, such an economic crisis could happen within just a few months, before the political game event plays out.
     
  • Dueling cabinets?  By the time People’s Assembly election results are announced in mid-January, it is highly likely that the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP, Muslim Brotherhood) will claim a majority and that the Nour Party (Salafi) will claim another quarter or so of the lower house.  The Brotherhood has long wanted to push Egypt in the direction of a parliamentary system, and now is making noises that surely after the elections the party with a majority or plurality in the parliament will be tasked with forming a cabinet—even before the political system has been determined via a new constitution.  The SCAF refusal to relinquish executive authority to an empowered civilian cabinet or national salvation government, and its appointment of a cabinet whose legitimacy is dubious at best, unfortunately feeds such demands.  So there could be a confrontation between the Brotherhood and the SCAF over the cabinet early in 2012, possibly even leading to rival cabinets.  Or, alternatively, the Brotherhood and SCAF might band together against the Tahrir demonstrators, who have threatened to appoint their own prime minister and even to elect their own president.
     
  • Constitutional irresponsibility.  Less dramatic, but a major danger for Egypt in 2012, would be a tendency to rush through a new constitution.  The SCAF, responding to protestor demands for some assurance that executive authority will be turned over to civilians, agreed that a presidential election will be held by the end of June 2012.  But the SCAF continues to insist that a new constitution be written and passed while the military holds executive authority, meaning that the document would have to be written, discussed, revised, and submitted to public referendum in the few months between parliamentary and presidential elections (upper house elections will take place January-March).  Recently the Brotherhood lent its support to this troubling plan.  Perhaps the idea is that the military and Brotherhood can conspire to get what each of them wants into the constitution quickly, before Egyptians realize to what they are agreeing?  This is unlikely to go over well, so look for lots of trouble during the March-June period if the timetable holds.  And if Egyptians do let the military and the Brotherhood ram through a constitution without protesting much, they are likely to regret it later.
     
  • Sectarian blow-up.  With Salafis empowered by what is admittedly an impressive victory in the parliamentary elections, can more confrontations with Egypt’s 8 million Christians be far behind?  Laws and regulations regarding the building and renovation of churches remain unresolved, so that is a likely flashpoint, as are the enduring conflicts over issues such as conversion and interfaith relationships.  Salafis might also begin provoking clashes with Christians and others over new issues such as the sale of alcohol, partly as a way to differentiate themselves from the Brotherhood.
     
  • Civil society in jail.  SCAF-inspired investigations of non-governmental civil society organizations receiving foreign funding, especially pro-democracy organizations seen as working with the United States, are leading inevitably toward criminal prosecutions.  While US and other officials fret about election results and other political issues, we could wake up in January to find the heads of many of the leading human rights and civil rights organizations under indictment.

While there is still room to hope that Egypt will eventually find its way to a genuine democratic transformation, unfortunately Egypt will begin its second year after the January 2011 revolution in a much darker place than it might have been in had the SCAF agreed to calls to bring credible civilian leaders into the transition.  This will raise painful choices for the U. S. administration, which will have to choose soon whether to anger the SCAF by cutting or reducing military aid (per conditionality in legislation authorizing military assistance) or to make a hypocrite of itself by continuing the assistance despite increasing sharp US criticism of the SCAF’s conduct.  

Michele Dunne is the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and an official observer of the first stage of the parliamentary elections. She can be reached at [email protected].

Photo Credit: The Daily Beast

 

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