By Thomas L. Friedman
May 30, 2011
I had some time to kill at the Cairo airport the other day so I rummaged through the Egyptian Treasures shop. I didn’t care much for the King Tut paper weights and ashtrays but was intrigued by a stuffed camel, which, if you squeezed its hump, emitted a camel honk. When I turned it over to see where it was manufactured, it read: “Made in China”. Now that they have decided to put former President Hosni Mubarak on trial, I hope Egyptians add to his indictment that he presided for 30 years over a country where nearly half the population lives on $2 a day and 20 per cent are unemployed while it is importing low-wage manufactured goods — a stuffed camel, no less — from China.
That’s an embarrassment for Mubarak and America, which has donated some $30 billion in aid to modernise Egypt’s economy over the last 30 years — and US President Barack Obama just promised a couple billion more. Egypt’s economy has nose-dived since the uprising, and the new government really does need the money to stay afloat. But I only hope that Obama and secretary of state Hillary Clinton understand that right now — right this second — Egypt needs something more from Washington than money: quiet, behind-the-scenes engagement with Egypt’s ruling generals over how to complete the transition to democracy here.
Here’s why. After the ouster of Mubarak in February, his presidential powers were shifted to a military council, led by the defence minister. It’s an odd situation, or as the Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building, put it to me: “We have had a revolution here that succeeded — but is not in power. So the goals of the revolution are being applied by an agent, the Army, which I think is sincere in wanting to do the right things, but it is not by nature revolutionary”.
To their credit, the Egyptian generals moved swiftly to put in place a pathway to democracy: elections for a new Parliament were set for September; this Parliament will then oversee the writing of a new Constitution, and then a new civilian President will be elected.
Sounds great on paper, and it was endorsed by a referendum, but there’s one big problem: The Tahrir Square revolution was a largely spontaneous, bottom-up affair. It was not led by any particular party or leader. Parties are just now being formed. If elections for Parliament are held in September, the only group in Egypt with a real party network ready to roll is the one that has been living underground and is now suddenly legal: the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
“Liberal people are feeling some concerns that they made the revolution and the Muslim Brotherhood can now take it. This is not true”, Esam el-Erian, one of the party’s leaders, insisted to me. But that is exactly what the urban, secular moderates, who actually did spearhead the Tahrir revolt, fear. They are only now forming parties and trying to build networks that can reach the millions of traditional Egyptians living in the countryside and persuade them to vote for a reform agenda and not just: “Islam is the answer”.
“The liberal parties need more time to organise”, said Naguib Sawiris, an Egyptian billionaire who’s heading the best organised of the liberal parties, and is urging all the liberal groups to run under a single banner and not divide their vote. If elections happen in September and the Muslim Brotherhood wins a plurality it could have an inordinate impact on writing Egypt’s first truly free Constitution and could inject restrictions on women, alcohol, dress, and the relations between mosque and state. “You will have an unrepresentative Parliament writing an unrepresentative Constitution”, argued Mohamed ElBaradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency czar who is running for President on a reform platform.
“Because the Muslim Brotherhood is ready, it wants elections first”, adds Osama Ghazali Harb, another reform party leader. “We as secular forces prefer to have some time to consolidate our parties. We must thank the Army for the role it played. But it was our revolution, not a coup d’état... If there are fair elections, the Muslim Brotherhood will only get 20 per cent”.
Free elections are rare in the Arab world, so when they happen, everybody tries to vote — not only the residents of that country. You can be sure money will flow in here from Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Muslim Brotherhood. America, though, cannot publicly intervene in the Egyptian election debate. It would only undermine the reformers, who have come so far, so fast, on their own and alienate the Egyptian generals. That said, though, it is important that senior US officials engage quietly with the generals and encourage them to take heed of the many Egyptian voices that are raising legitimate concerns about a premature runoff.
In short, the Egyptian revolution is not over. It has left the dramatic street phase and is now in the seemingly boring but utterly vital phase of deciding who gets to write the rules for the new Egypt. And how Egypt evolves will impact the whole Arab world. I just hope the Obama team is paying attention. This is so much more important than Libya.
Source: The Asian Age