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Lest the revolution turn into a wasted opportunity

  by: : Alaa Al-Aswani



Lest the revolution turn into a wasted opportunity

Following the successful 1919 revolution and after the British occupying forces succumbed to the will of the Egyptian people, King Faruq established a committee to draft a new constitution. The committee was appointed rather than elected. Nationalist leader Saad Zaghloul objected, demanding that a constituent assembly be elected to ensure the constitution reflects the will of the people. But King Faruq insisted on his position. The appointed committee drafted the 1923 constitution, which gave the king the right the dissolve parliament at any time. This grave constitutional deficiency ruined political life by turning parliament into a tool for the king. Zaghloul’s Wafd party, which held a majority of seats in parliament, took power only once over the course of the next 30 years.

Oddly, Zaghloul accepted the 1923 constitution, despite its defects. As Egypt’s uncontested leader at the time, he could have called on Egyptians to insist on their right to a just and democratic constitution. But the opportunity was lost.

After the 1952 revolution, Egypt wasted another opportunity for democratization. The anti-democracy current within the Free Officers dominated the revolution and on 16 January, 1953, they issued a decision to dissolve all political parties and confiscate their money and offices. The Wafd party was the majority party at the time and could have mobilized the public against dictatorship, in which case the officers would have retreated and Egypt’s democratic system would have been preserved. But the Wafd party did not raise any objections. This was another wasted opportunity for Egypt. Instead, the country remained under authoritarian rule for the next 60 years.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s history is replete with lost opportunities for democratization. We now have another opportunity, which I hope will not be lost. The 25 January revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to step down. Hundreds of Egyptians sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Since its inception, however, the revolution was confronted with a vicious counter-revolution — both inside and outside of Egypt.  

A few days ago, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar reported that Egyptian authorities are under massive pressure from Arab rulers, especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to ensure that Mubarak is not tried. The report asserted that these Arab states had directly threatened to freeze all relations with Cairo, cut all financial assistance, and withdraw their investments from Egypt. They even went as far as threatening to dismiss the 5 million Egyptians working in those countries, if Mubarak were to be tried.

For its part, Israel always defended Hosni Mubarak, one of its best allies. The Israeli press does not conceal its concerns about meaningful democratic change in Egypt. The US administration has a similar position. Both American and Israeli officials recognize Egypt’s potential and know it will become a powerful regional force in a matter of years, if it becomes a democracy.

Writing for The Guardian, prominent American intellectual Noam Chomsky argued that the United States supports authoritarianism in Egypt not because of it fears of Islamic extremism, as it usually claims, but because it fears an independent Egypt that is not reliant on American support. The US administration will work hard, Chomsky added, to ensure that Egypt’s next president remains faithful to American interests.

In addition to the international threats against Egypt’s revolution, there are also serious domestic challenges.  The bases of Mubarak’s regime are still intact. The ex-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) remains entrenched across Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of NDP members will do their best to regain power, albeit under a new label. Hundreds of state security officers, who have fled their work places, are now free to cause a great deal of destruction. Tens of thousands of municipal council members, governors, university presidents and deans (appointed by the security apparatus), media figures, heads of companies and fraudulent labor unions, are now conspiring against the revolution.

What are the objectives of the counter-revolution? Mubarak’s statements to the international press, before he stepped down, are particularly telling.

“I want to step down but I’m worried about chaos in Egypt…I’m worried that the Muslim Brotherhood might come to power.”

The counter-revolution is now executing a plan to bring to life Mubarak’s fears in order to show the ex-president was right. This plan includes:

1.    Inciting chaos and terrorizing Egyptians to make them feel insecure. This is intended to make them weary of the revolution and push them to accept half-solutions for the sake of stability. This plan began with the withdrawal of police forces across Egypt and the freeing of 40,000 criminals from prison, who were armed and given instructions to attack civilians. The plan remained in effect during Ahmed Shafiq’s tenure as prime minister. When Essam Sharaf took over, several incidents of vandalism and sectarian tension took place, thereby humiliating the government of the revolution. Despite the great efforts undertaken by the new Interior Minister, Mansur Al-Issawi, the police force remains largely absent. The refusal of the police to protect this nation constitutes treason. Police officers can only abstain from doing their jobs if they are given orders to do so. It’s clear that those instructing police officers not to do their duties have more influence than the Minister of Interior himself.

Incidents of thuggery in Egypt are not haphazard. They’re mostly planned and targeted. For instance, security personnel in the front the Moqatam polling station did not intervene when reform advocate Mohammad ElBaradei was attacked by NDP supporters on the day of the referendum. In Shubra, during the two days preceding the referendum, thugs were allowed to block roads, terrorize people and fire random shots, leading to several deaths. Not a single police officer or army soldier intervened to protect citizens. Does the fact that many Copts live in Shubra and that Coptic leaders had announced their opposition to the constitutional amendments have anything to do with these attacks? Were the attacks intended to terrorize Copts to force them to accept the amendments or were they meant to punish them for insisting on Egyptians’ right to a new constitution?

2.    Holding selective trials, most of which are done under the spotlight of the media. State media (which was also under the control of the state security apparatus) rushed to photograph ex-NDP members Ahmed Ezz, Zoheir Garana, and Ahmed Maghrabi in their prison uniforms, during their investigations. Leaving aside the fact that this went against all professional standards, the purpose was to absorb the anger of Egyptians and convince them that justice was being served. With all due respect to the general prosecutor, there are several unanswered questions in this regard.

Why hasn't Mubarak or his family members been investigated? Why haven’t ex-NDP leaders Zakaria Azmi, Fathi Sorour and Safwat al-Sherif been put on trial? Why hasn't the general prosecutor investigated the 24 complaints lodged by civil aviation workers against Ahmed Shafiq on charges of wasting public funds? During Ahmed Shafiq’s tenure as prime minister, why did the general prosecutor not order the investigation any police officers on charges of murdering protesters? After Shafiq was sacked, why did the prosecutor’s office release those officers accused of murder? Won’t their release allow them to conceal evidence that might be used to indict them? What's the point of trying corrupt officials and murderers selectively?

3.    Egyptians were not allowed to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution that reflects the will of the people and moves Egypt into an era of democracy. Instead, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces surprisingly adopted Mubarak’s proposal to institute limited constitutional amendments. The process of drafting and approving the amendments was plagued by a series of shortcomings. First, members of the amendments committee were not selected on the basis of any clear criteria. Second, the referendum was held hastily following the announcement of the proposed amendments, making it difficult for people to fully comprehend the issues involved. Third, citizens could only accept or reject the amendments as a package. Fourth, the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP were united for the first time in approving the amendments. The Brotherhood demonstrated its readiness to change its position depending on its interests. After collecting signatures for months to support ElBaradei’s reform campaign, the Brotherhood turned its back on him and allied itself with the NDP.

The principles of Islam seem to be suspended for the Brotherhood during election season as it's prepared to do anything to gain power. The Brotherhood has accused its opponents of being foreign agents. It has distributed sugar and oil to some voters, terrorized others, and even went so far as labeling some of them apostates. The Brotherhood's strong showing, even if it does not accurately represent their influence across Egypt, is serving the aims of the counter-revolution. On the one hand, the Brotherhood is polarizing Egyptians on the basis of religion. It is undermining the national unity that the revolution has nurtured. On the other hand, the Brotherhood demonstrates to sympathizers of the revolution in the West that Hosni Mubarak was indeed the final bulwark against extremists.

Those who were frustrated with the media's warm reception of Islamic Jihad leader and killer Abud al-Zumur following his release from prison last week must recognize that the his image offers support for the counter-revolution. Al-Zumur, whose long beard is reminiscent of Osama Bin Laden's, announced on television that killing in the name of religion is legitimate. This statement terrified millions of Westerners who sympathized with the Egyptian revolution, but are now ready to accept the return of the old regime in the name of protecting Egypt from extremists.

Those in favor of the constitutional amendments have won the referendum. My happiness with the great voter turnout and my respect for the voters aside, it is my duty to assert that proceeding with the transition process at such a rapid pace is against the interests of Egypt and the revolution.

If those in power truly want to support democratic change, our candidate-centered electoral system must be changed. This current system will allow the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood to win most of the seats in an election. That they should be in charge of drafting Egypt’s new constitution is unacceptable. Most legal scholars have argued that a constitution drafted by a parliament that is elected through the existing system will not represent the Egyptian people’s will. Their advice must be taken seriously. Egypt’s great revolution will not become another wasted opportunity. If the transition process takes us backwards, no one will be able stop the Egyptian people, who forced Hosni Mubarak to step down, from achieving their freedom.

Democracy is the solution.