Arab Spring of Nations: what's next? -- The Egyptian Paradox

by Wael Abdel Hamid, Arab Spring Series // Published March 22, 2011
134750 01 02

"We should pay careful attention to the rules that govern upcoming elections in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. If history is any guide, protestors and reformists may be left out in the cold if transitional electoral systems simply diffuse power and reinforce clientelism rather than alter the rules of the game in a fundamental way."

Exactly one month ago, Andrew Barwing wrote these lines in Foreign Policy magazine .
Indeed, violent revolutions and/or deep constitutional shifts have occurred in many Arabic countries. Meanwhile, many other Arabic nations have been roiled by popular revolt, as in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan and Libya, which has even dived into a bloody civil war.
Yet even in Egypt and Tunisia, where former presidents Mubarak and Ben Ali are no longer into power, troubles persist. There, it is no longer the time for celebration, but instead for genuine reconstruction. Over the coming days I will provide a brief overview of situation nation-by-nation, starting with Egypt.



Outside of Libya, Egypt is the place where the political situation is the most undecided and where the future is the hardest to predict.

First of all, the overall atmosphere among leaders of the recent protests is currently rather glum.  This was not the case few weeks ago, just after the revolution, when the whole world could notice and rejoice in a new Egyptian "spirit of national pride". Among other signs of national good feeling, Egyptians saw protesters, who had spent weeks camped outside in protest of the government, cleaning the streets after the fall of Mubarak's regime. This climate brought great hope and gave the impression that Egyptians could rebuild naturally the new democratic country that they fought to obtain.

However, time seems to have taken away the last feelings of serenity. The tension crystallized after Vice President Omar Suleiman, the leader of the Egyptian political transition and also the former right hand of Hosni Mubarak, narrowly escaped an early February assassination attempt led by mysterious revolutionaries who wanted to eliminate the last traces of the old power structure.

Indeed, the motto in fashion on the streets of Cairo seems to be "We can't make new things with old ones", and apparently Omar Suleiman is in the wrong category.

Paradoxically, it is this same "strong man" who led the constitutional reforms submitted to a referendum last Saturday, March 18. Under the proposed amendments we find changes that seem like clear improvements such as a limitation to two 4-year presidential terms instead of unlimited 6 year ones. The president would also be compelled to appoint a vice president. Constitutional amendments would also make it easier for individuals to qualify to run for president and reinstate judicial supervision for all kinds of elections.

Those positive changes help explain why the referendum has been adopted by a large margin in the first elections of post-Mubarak era. Nevertheless, there was a strong "no" campaign led by two potential and credible presidential candidates, Arab League leader Amr Moussa and former chairman of the Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed el Baradei. These personalities, faithful to the current motto (cf: "We can't make new things with old ones") ,  refused reforms that they judged insufficient and called for a new constitution that goes deeper, especially in changing electoral rules .  They also expressed concern about the timeline for elections.

Such changes could be a reliable solution for stemming the Muslim Brotherhood party, which seems to be the most organized group on the transitional Egyptian political scene. Soft constitutional reforms like those passed last Sunday may be the best way to see the radical Islamic organization leading the polls this coming June for the Parliamentary elections and even in August for the Presidential vote.
For their part, the Muslim Brothers appealed their supporters to vote "yes" in the referendum, warning of the dangers of a legislative vacuum.

The results also underscore the value of Egypt embracing pluralism with adoption of proportional representation voting system rather than winner-take-all. Some of the most thoughtful, forward-looking Egyptians opposed the constitutional referendum, and some would argue that earning 23% of the vote nationally and some 40% in parts of Cairo is a victory against the current regime. With proportional voting, that voice would be sure to earn a seat at the table in parliamentary elections. With the current winner-take-all system, however, it could lead to very few seats, isolating important voices who could help ensure Egypt does not fall into one-party government closely associated either with the Mubarak regime or the Muslim Brotherhood?

The questions facing Egypt are numerous and important: Will the Egyptian people settle for small, quick steps bringing more democracy to their country, even if this favors the irresistible rise of the Muslim Brothers? Or will they bet on a deeper shift, even though it is likely to require more time for a successful transition?

Finally, will western countries stay silent and keep their distance from the Egyptian political situation? The threat of the Muslim Brothers, which was at the center of all international discussions a couple of weeks ago during the Egyptian Revolution, now seems indeed to be strangely ignored.