Columnist

Egypt between turbulence and rebirth

The Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court’s decision Thursday to dissolve the elected parliament and allow former Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq to contest the presidential election this weekend will generate heated debate. However, the decisions strike me as a new building block in the complex and erratic process that has been under way in Egypt for the past 17 months: the steady reconfiguration and relegitimization of a rotten political system. Despite some turbulence ahead, this is a healthy development for several reasons.

The most significant aspect of these court decisions may be the growing role of the judiciary in Egypt’s political transition and rebirth. This is a critical element in any credible political system that aims to be democratic, pluralistic and based on the rule of law.

We now also have more clarity in the five main political groups that contest power and seek to shape the future governance system in Egypt: The military, which remains in formal control of power and will maintain a behind-the-scenes role for years to come; the old guard Hosni Mubarak loyalists and their many supporters who crave calm and jobs, and who will vote for Shafiq for president; the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and other Islamists, who are a leading but also a declining political force, as witnessed by their sharp drop in votes between the parliamentary elections last year and this year’s first round presidential vote; the remnants of the revolutionary youth and associated progressive and civil society groups who spearheaded the populist overthrow of Mubarak’s regime, but were not organized enough to gain any serious political power in the subsequent elections; and the many centrist, Nasserite, secular and liberal political parties that may represent nearly half the electorate, but that splintered their votes and did not gain meaningfully in the parliamentary or first-round presidential election.

Media and civil society organizations are also active players in the political process. The court’s decisions effectively allow all these forces to resume their contest for power in the two main institutions of state authority – parliament and the presidency. The fact that voters in the presidential runoff election have to choose between Shafiq and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Mursi angers many Egyptians who dislike both these poles of the political spectrum. Yet it would be a mistake to analyze or judge the impact of the court rulings mainly on the basis of what they mean for the presidential election.

That is because the presidency is only one element in a dynamic universe of political governance institutions that continue to take shape and define these institutions’ relationships and relative powers. These include the presidency, the elected lower house of parliament, the less-powerful upper house, the 100-member appointed commission that will write a new Constitution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that still retains full power, and the judiciary that has now come to life again, even though its decisions are controversial and many of its institutions are manned by Mubarak-era appointees used to being guided by the military. The role, authority and credibility of each of these institutions are evolving constantly these days, and will continue to do so for years to come.

This reflects the fact that Egypt has now entered into a new phase of national life in which power increasingly is contested politically, and in the public sphere, where actors come and go, and political arenas do the same. The public itself – comprised of more than 80 million citizens – remains an active political player in two ways. Egyptians can shape events according to how they vote in the various elections yet to come, and they can exert pressure by taking to the streets in massive demonstrations when they feel that anyone is trying to monopolize power and return the country to the military rule it suffered for 60 years.

If the Mubarak-era old guard, perhaps with the quiet support of the military, works its way back into power through elections, we would likely see a recurrence of the mass demonstrations that started this democratic transition in January-February 2011. This is especially likely if, as many critics believe, the court decisions this week were a disguised military coup against legitimately elected civilian powers.

The most dangerous development was the Justice Ministry’s quiet decision Wednesday allowing security officers to arrest civilians suspected of crimes that are wildly vague in their definition, including acts deemed “harmful to the government” or “obstructing traffic,” effectively reinstating elements of the emergency laws that had lapsed a few weeks ago after decades in force. The turbulence continues, as do the reconstitution of a gutted polity and the rebirth of a people who had been put in a stupor by their political and military elite.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 16, 2012, on page 7.

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