Egypt’s military rulers should re-instate parliament and retreat from political life or risk further polarization and conflict in a deeply divided country, experts warned. If the military fails to adapt to changes in Egyptian society and continues to be seen as part of the old order, it will find itself in a long drawn-out-battle that it is likely to lose, according to the UK-based think tank Chatham House.
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Dr. Maha Azzam, an associate fellow at Chatham House, said that Egypt’s transition to democracy was being undermined by the legacy of 60 years of military rule in which the generals backed one regime after another. She said Egypt’s military rulers should make an official announcement of the presidential winner and re-instate the parliament they dissolved earlier this month.
“We need to see a commitment on the part of the military council that it is going to withdraw from political life,” Azzam said. “Most importantly we need to see that the whole issue of dissolving parliament is retracted and that parliament, the freely elected parliament, can sit again and hold its president accountable.”
Egypt’s fraught transition to democracy was the subject of a meeting in London this week that brought together analysts, activists and rights organizations. The discussion focused on the recent upheaval following what has been described as a ‘military coup.’
In the space of one week, Egypt’s generals reasserted their control over the political scene by dissolving parliament and reclaiming legislative power, stripping the presidency of much of its powers and effectively re-instating the emergency law by giving military officers the right to arrest civilians.
Most recently, the generals delayed the announcement of the presidential election results, originally scheduled for June 21.
Azzam said failure to achieve a speedy transition to civilian rule will increase the polarization between the old guard and the ‘new’ Egypt and will distract from pressing economic and social demands.
The delay in election results has led to intense speculation that the Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohammed Mursi is claiming victory, is engaged in behind the scenes deal-making with the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF).
Azzam said that the Muslim Brotherhood would be well advised to take whatever concessions are being offered by the armed forces, saying the brotherhood can always re-negotiate terms later.
The dilemma for the Muslim Brotherhood, according to Azzam, is that they don’t have the support of a united political class. Without the backing of political forces, the Brotherhood doesn’t have the power to negotiate with the SCAF as one representative block.
Mistrust of the Brotherhood and suspicion of deal-making with SCAF has been rife throughout the transition. This has increased after the group went back on a number of promises, most notably the decision to field a candidate for president. Azzam said the Muslim Brotherhood will “have to see this game through.”
“They want the presidency but at this juncture they may still be denied it,” Azzam said. “They are going to have to ensure they gain the presidency and by doing so, they will have taken a right step towards a civil society.”
Some activists also see the Islamist candidate Mursi as the candidate better suited to move Egypt towards a civilian state, rather than his rival Ahmed Shafiq, a military man who served as Mubarak’s last prime minister.
Amr Gharbeia from human rights group the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who spoke at the London event, told Al Arabiya in an interview that a president Mursi had a better chance of ending the status quo and bringing a divided country together.
“No candidate in and of themselves can actually unify the opposition and revolution powers, but one of them, namely Mursi, can start a dynamic that would eventually lead to unifying the revolutionary power,” Gharbeia said. “It will lead to ending the stagnation and conflict that has characterized Egypt for years, the conflict between the Muslim Brotherhood and authoritarian rule, whether by the Mubarak regime or SCAF.”
Gharbeia sees a civilian-led coalition government that reflects the interests of different groups within Egypt as the best way to end the decades-long ‘tug of war’ between the military and the Islamists.
“Having a civilian president and a civilian government will mean that people will demand delivery on the bread and butter issues,” he said.
Echoing a sentiment expressed by activists and revolutionaries in recent days, Gharbeia said Egypt is back to where it was on Feb. 12, 2011, the day after Mubarak stepped down.
“We have been side-tracked again in the long transition, it was non-starter,” he explained, citing a misguided focus during the uprising on identity politics rather than on those who wielded hard power.
“The military has control of hard power,” he said. “It is not really a military coup. The military has ruled all along and if the revolution will be victorious, the military will have to cede power.”
Azzam said the military’s latest power grab should come as no surprise.
“Why would a junta that supported a dictatorship for so long behave democratically?” she asked.
(Carina Kamel is a Senior Correspondent for Al Arabiya based in London and can be followed on twitter @Carina_Bn)