All eyes are on Egypt right now. The popular uprising that began on January 25 has been hailed worldwide as a revolutionary model. But now that the euphoria has died down, will a truly democratic political system be established?
It was arguably the world’s most spectacular ‘revolution’. For weeks, TV news channels around the world focused on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. If it had been a Hollywood movie, instead of reality, it would have been slammed as far-fetched. How could a small group of educated, tech-savvy youngsters bring down a 30-year-old regime? How could they succeed against water cannons, tear gas, live bullets, armies of petrol-bombwielding thugs and medieval-style attacks by riders on horse and camel back?
They told their parents they may never come back. They prostrated themselves under the wheels of tanks. They protected their heads with saucepans and taped water bottles and even bread roles to their bodies. The wounded were treated and bandaged in a makeshift clinic and even when badly injured they went back for more, holding to the belief that the military would never turn its guns on them. And they were right.
After the protests began, prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood movement arrived in the square, bringing at least a million demonstrators with them. And then came the journalists, the lawyers the doctors and the union representatives. As the economy went into freefall, a wave of industrial strikes finally tipped the balance.
On February 11 2011, Vice-President Omar Suleiman appeared on state TV to announce that Hosni Mubarak had resigned and that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was in charge. The entire country erupted in a state of happiness. No one seemed to mind that martial law had been imposed, that there were tanks on the street, or that a 7pm to 7am curfew was in existence. Why? Because in Egypt the army is seen as the protector of the people. The celebrations continued for days, but the youth movement refused to leave Tahrir Square until the cabinet appointed by Mubarak was dismantled, to make way for a caretaker cabinet led by the former Minister of Transport Essam Sharaf, who was known to be a vocal critic of the former regime.
A committee was formed to amend 19 articles of the constitution, limiting any presidential term and allowing parties with a single parliamentary seat to propose a presidential candidate. These amendments were overwhelmingly accepted by 77 per cent of the voters in what was one of the highest turn-outs in a national referendum for years. As a result, parliamentary and presidential elections were scheduled to take place later this year.
Right now, with elections in sight and the political system undergoing an overhaul, most but not all Egyptians are optimistic. The political analyst Said Zulficar is dismayed that the young instigators of the uprising are still leaderless and remain disorganised, leaving the long-established National Democratic Party formerly headed by Mubarak (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood in dominant positions. The activists, he says, want to see the former IAEA head ElBaradei as leader of the country and claim ElBaradei was the first to confront Mubarak during a protest in Alexandria last year. However, ElBaradei has lived abroad for many years and is little known outside Cairo. Mr Zulficar believes on the other hand, that the Arab League Chief Amr Moussa would be the best candidate for the job as he is backed by the military and his popularity is in keeping with the polls. He adds however that he would prefer a president who was younger and not connected to the old regime.
The Dean of Arts and Sciences, and Professor of International Studies, at the American University of Sharjah, Mark Edward Rush, says he’s less worried about the presidential candidates than the constitution. “A valid constitutional process is the one thing that will guarantee stability,” he comments. “At least people will have a voice. No one can expect to win all the time but at least people can say the constitutional system works.
That will transcend personalities - whether a president is good or bad - and will restrain the military. The future of Egypt rides on peaceful elections in which people participate. The most telling factor is popular acceptance of the process”.
Mr Zulficar is concerned that the so-called Egyptian revolution is not a revolution in the traditional sense of the word and has yet to result in any long term solutions for the country’s political system. “A revolution is when the status quo is turned upside down,” he says. “This could be termed a ‘revolutionary situation’ or a ‘popular insurrection’ as nothing much has changed. The same people who used to praise the regime in the media are still in place. The heads of universities and institutions are still there. Several corrupt former regime figures aren’t being investigated.”
He hopes that the army will gradually loosen its grip on the country to allow for a strong civilian government to be established. Professor Rush adds: “Ultimately the military will have to relinquish power. I think the key issue to consider, even if there is a shift to democracy, is whether it will be able to solve Egypt’s economic problems and high unemployment level”.
“It is absolutely vital that Egypt demonstrates stability in adverse economic times,” adds Professor Rush. “Egyptians will be tested to demonstrate that democracy works and that they can weather economic ups and downs. If democracy can succeed in Egypt it will become a beacon for the region.”
With so much upheaval taking place in the Middle East and North Africa right now, nothing is certain, but one thing’s for sure: the Egyptian people have come too far and made too many sacrifices to fail. They’ve only recently acquired a sense of power and now that they’ve had a taste of it for the first time; they believe that their aspirations will be realised.