Egypt’s Transition: The End Of The Beginning
Hosni Mubarak’s resignation from the Egyptian presidency on Friday marked just the beginning of Egypt’s transition to democracy.
Certainly, Mubarak’s departure after 30 years in office was a tremendous victory for Egyptian ‘people power’, and it will have sent a loud message to authoritarian rulers throughout the region – and beyond – that public unrest can gather momentum with surprising speed, and topple even the most durable of leaders.
However, as I predicted, the tipping point came when the military either eased Mubarak out or removed him from power directly. (It will be interesting to see what comes out in the near future about who said what to Mubarak during the night of February 10-11.) Egypt thus woke up on February 12 to find the military officially in charge of the country. Given that the military was already influential in the Egyptian state, this was not such a big change. Furthermore, the head of the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, had served as Defence Minister for the past 20 years, and is thus the ultimate regime insider. While it is unclear what status Vice-President Omar Suleiman occupies, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq remains in situ. Overall, the old regime is very much in place.
The Higher Council has announced that it would control the country “for six months or until the end of elections to both houses of parliament and the presidency” and amend the constitution in the interim. This should reassure Egyptians that they have not merely replaced one dictatorship with another.
However, BMI’s Middle East analysts caution that any foot-dragging by the military on the timetable to democracy could reignite popular protests. Ordinary Egyptians have a once in a lifetime opportunity to fashion their political system into a more competitive and open one, and will resent any military procrastination.
Evidence from the transitions of military-backed one-party rule in countries such as Indonesia suggest that it will take around five years for Egypt to transition to a fully competitive political system. (I mention Indonesia because there are close parallels between Suharto and Mubarak.) In the meantime, Egypt’s dominant National Democratic Party (NDP) can still remain a powerful force (albeit most probably under a new name), if only because of its long experience in government. Indeed, former ‘parties-of-power’ in Indonesia, South Korea, and Taiwan still remain core political forces. Even if the NDP fragments or regroups, I suspect that Egypt’s military will retain considerable behind-the-scenes influence under any fully civilian democratically-elected administration, as is the case in Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, and Turkey.