In The National Interest Marina Ottaway describes the chaotic nature of the transitional periods in Egypt and Tunisia as a consequence of a lack of an agreed upon transitional plan. The transitional governments in both countries are illegitimate and must make the fundamental shifts necessary to allow elections and the creation of an elected government. Yet the constant demands of protesters are forcing the governments to make reactionary moves and to consolidate power through tactics reminiscent of the dictators that were so recently removed. For this reason, Ottaway argues, the revolutions are in danger. In Egypt, at least, the danger is not the lack of an agreed upon transitional map, but rather competing visions for post-revolution Egypt.
Countries in transition face contradictory imperatives: they need to move fast to elect legitimate governments that can implement real reforms, but they need time to achieve some consensus about the fundamental principles that should underpin the new political system and to enact laws to regulate elections and the formation of political parties. Finding a balance is a difficult task. The experience of Tunisia and Egypt provides important lessons.
Ottaway goes on to claim that the important lesson to be taken from the Egyptian and Tunisian examples is that the post-coup transitional period needs to be well-planned and the transitional governments given time to properly organize elections:
The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for countries likely to enter transition soon is that it is impossible—as well as unadvisable—to organize elections in a few months. Too much needs to happen first—constitutional amendments, new laws, new parties and some consensus on principles. But a slower process requires a clear roadmap and timetable, with benchmarks and deadlines, not a vague process left to the whims of governments with scant legitimacy and of impatient crowds. Such a process should ideally be agreed upon early on.
And this is true. Hastily organized elections are bound to be flawed and after decades of political disenfranchisement, it will understandably take time to forge a new and just political system out of nothing. In this light, and taken in a political vacuum, protesters need to have some patience to allow a transitional government to prepare the country for a new, legitimate government. Yet, Egypt does not exist in a political vacuum. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not acting like an extension of Mubarak due to pressure from impatient Egyptians, but rather because of an institutional desire to moderate the revolution and maintain the foundations of the Mubarak regime.
Ottaway believes that the demands made by the protesters are causing the SCAF to shed its stand-with-the-people veneer:
But the protesters’ demands are equally dangerous. They want selected ministers to be fired now and those responsible for the deaths of protesters in February to be brought to justice immediately. What Egypt needs, however, is not ad hoc decisions taken to pacify protesters. It needs a legitimate government set up on the basis of clear criteria and a transitional justice mechanism that avoids revenge and witch hunts but deals with accusations against officials of the old regime on the basis of law and political consensus. Instead, it is getting a hastily decided cabinet reshuffle already rejected by protesters and the sudden dismissal of hundreds of high-ranking police officers, a move that smacks of political expediency rather than due process.
The fact that SCAF and various governmental posts are staffed with those who either participated in or were complicit in the bloody crackdown in January is a reason to continue protests. Purging the government of ancien régime members and demanding that those who were responsible for the crackdown be brought to justice is not unreasonable or dangerous. Moreover, a SCAF decision to give in to these demands would not be simple political expediency and would have little effect on whether the transitional government would be able to aptly organize for the beginning of an elected, legitimate government.
Revolutions that completely upend the existing, unjust political order are immensely emotional; and even more emotional when the revolutionary process results in the mobilization of millions and the deaths of almost a thousand compatriots. To see those responsible for the government crackdown protected by or, worse still, participating in the transitional government is an insult to the revolution. It is the right of the people to demand a transitional government more in tune with the people and any resistance to these demands is simply the interim government attempting to direct the revolution for its own benefit.
This is precisely what is happening in Egypt. The superficial changes made by SCAF are not due to a political expediency meant to placate the unreasonable demands of an impatient people; SCAF is trying to forge a government in which the army is guaranteed a fundamental role and in which it is not controlled by a civilian government. Moreover, it is attempting to accomplish this by the very tactics used by Mubarak for decades.
Impatience with interim governments that are honestly trying to prepare the country for an unprecedented phase of governmental legitimacy is a problem. However, this is simply not the case in Egypt. Egyptians are not unreasonable in demanding more from SCAF and to be wary about the steps taken by the Egyptian military. Ottaway concludes that:
[The interim governments] cannot allow the street to dictate in an arbitrary fashion what the government must do, but they cannot expect that people will forever accept the equally arbitrary decisions taken by interim governments.
Demanding an independent interim government and justice is not arbitrary. The continuing protests in Egypt are not the result of an impatient people that are placing unreasonable demands on the caretaker government. Likewise, the the steps taken to create an Egyptian democracy that is centered on the military is not arbitrary. It is the sign of a transitional government that is not independent, and that is more interested in maintaining power that creating a true democracy.
In other words, Ottaway’s concern for the Egyptian revolution is warranted, but not because the people are forcing SCAF into unwise decisions for the sake of political expediency. The danger in Egypt centers around the fundamental divide between the wishes of the people and those of the military.
Photo from Ratio Juris