By Dr. Ronald Meinardus
CAIRO: Egypt’s revolutionaries of the first hour are looking back at the early days of the uprising with a sense of nostalgia, when Cairo’s Tahrir Square had become the political center not only of Egypt but the whole world. Half a year later, a sense of disappointment and letdown has gripped many Egyptians as they find out that the revolution has more or less come to an end, while a genuine change of power has yet to happen.
Those who had expected quick results in the sense that Egypt would become a welfare state or a democratic role model have been disappointed. History teaches that transitions from dictatorships to democracies are never linear. These epochal changes are usually gradual and full of setbacks.
Take Europe’s big revolutions two centuries ago which were followed by decades of political turmoil, bloody wars and phases of political restoration. More recently, in Eastern Europe, the change from the communist dictatorship to liberal democracy did not occur overnight. In my own country Germany, coming to terms with the autocratic past is still a major political issue for many — twenty years after the unification and the defeat of communism.
“We cannot determine whether the revolution will prove a success or a failure before four or five years have passed,” says prominent Egyptian writer Salama Ahmed Salama in a recent newspaper interview. “Democracy cannot be easily reached in two to three years. Turning to democracy is a gradual process that takes years” Salama cautions. One may add: Transitions of such magnitude also require patience. However, patience is not a primary virtue of revolutions — even less so, when the revolutionaries are young and hungry, out of work and in search of what to do with their lives.
At this time, the modalities of the transition are the primary political issue in Egypt. Put positively: The Egyptians are witnessing the birth of a democratic order the exact parameters of which nobody knows. This is a new situation for everybody. The political forces are enjoying the new political spaces. However they have yet to agree on a set of commonly accepted rules of the political game. Expect this to be contentious as long as the country lacks a democratically legitimized constitution.
As in all transitions there are winners and losers. The losses may be particularly painful for those who used to hold power and privilege. Egypt has not reached this point yet. Many Egyptians are fed up to see members of the ancient regime sitting in the first row holding on to political and social influence.
A big issue these days is the role of the armed forces. Once a red line, no one would talk about in public, this too has changed. There is a general view among analysts that the military at no time has given up its supreme power. In the initial euphoria, all Egyptians were elated that the soldiers protected “their” revolution. Today, many are shocked to learn that elements in the military may be responsible for human rights violations. Check out Twitter using the hashtag #SCAF (for Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) and you will quickly see what I am alluding to.
Fragmentation of the political forces is a further feature typical of the early phase of political transitions. What we could observe in Eastern Europe two decades ago, we see one more time in Egypt (and also Tunisia). In these countries political parties have sprung up like mushrooms. In the beginning, this partisan proliferation was particularly apparent among the liberal and more secular forces. Interestingly the political fragmentation has now also reached the Islamist camp. Political organizations have emerged on the right side of the Muslim Brothers. In tone and in substance the Salafis and Jihadists seem far more radical than the traditional Islamist grouping. That said, we may soon consider the Muslim Brothers — or their partisan offshoot the Freedom and Justice Party — as a comparatively moderate political force.
In spite of the ideological differences, all Egyptian political parties are aware that they only stand a chance to come to power if they unite with other forces. In the run-up to the parliamentary elections slated for November, we are witnessing a proliferation of party alliances and coalitions. The initial plan by some was to form one major coalition including political parties of all the major ideological tendencies. This arrangement is apparently falling apart. We may, therefore, expect heated contests between liberal and other secular forces on the one side and religious parties on the other side.
In a worst case scenario, this contest may morph into an ugly struggle threatening the national harmony of the country. Personally, I am optimistic that such an escalation may be avoided. A majority of Egyptians would support such forces that favor compromise and reject division.
It is high time that the people are given the choice to choose democratically their next government. This is an extraordinary perspective for this country and the entire Arab world. It will also be a major triumph for democracy. Without the revolution, this could never have happened. The message of the revolution is well-defined and unambiguous: Freedom, democracy and social justice for all Egyptians. It would be a tragedy for Egypt and the region at large, if revisionist and other undemocratic forces manage to hijack this message.
Dr. Ronald Meinardus, is the Regional Director of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Liberty in Cairo – [email protected].