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Egypt’s Military Promises Elections Within Six Months

6 minute read
Aryn Baker / Cairo

Egypt’s new military rulers on Sunday revealed their plans for a transition to democracy, announcing the dissolution of the parliament chosen in a rigged election last November, and suspending the constitution that would prevent a genuinely democratic poll. The Supreme Counci of the Armed Forces, to which President Hosni Mubarak ceded power last Friday, also made clear in its “Communique No. 5” that the generals would remain in control for just six months, within which time new elections would be held. The announcement, addressing some of the protest movement’s key demands, came as the military moved to clear the streets, although by persuasion rather than force — as was demonstrated by the good natured standoff on Tahrir Square, where some of the remaining protesters refused to dismantle their tents until all of their demands had been met.

The new Egypt had woken to the sound of scrubbing on Saturday, as thousands of volunteers took to the streets around Cairo’s Tahrir Square with brooms and buckets and trash bags to erase the ravages of 18 days of continued protest. With rock music blaring from car stereos and shop windows, the impromptu cleaning crews laid down fresh paint over battered curbs and scrubbed furiously at graffiti defacing the square’s statues. Rheem Desouky, a tour guide wearing a surgical mask against the rising dust of her broom, paused for break. “We are happy that Mubarak is gone,” she said. “But the revolution doesn’t stop there. He was just one part of the problem, and we have to clean out the whole system. What better way to start than with our streets?”

The well organized clean-up effort — initiated, like the protest itself, by a facebook campaign — sought to impose order on a transition rife with uncertainty. A communiqué released towards the end of Saturday indicated that the Supreme Military Council planned to retain the current government as a caretaker administration until a new one is formed. Instead of calming the situation, that missive only seemed to sow confusion. It is still unclear if Mubarak’s recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman retains his post, and the lack of a clear timeline had made some Egyptians uneasy.

But others say that the success of the revolution should give every Egyptian confidence that his or her voice would never again be ignored. “The equation of power between the people and the state has changed forever,” says Wael Nawara, Secretary General of the opposition Ghad Party. “Everyone knows now that it is impossible to work against the will of the people.”

(See who might vie for Egypt’s presidency following Mubarak’s ouster.)

That may be so, but turning a popular revolution into deep and lasting institutional reform will require sustained effort by all Egyptians. Cleaning the streets is just a start. “This is our country now, and we are responsible for it,” says George Basily, a resort hotel manager. “It is not a matter of wishes. We have to work to make it clean of corruption and dictatorship, and we have to work to keep it that way.”

While Facebook has been instrumental in getting people on to the streets — and now the trash off the streets — it is still up to what is left of the leadership to broker the election reforms that ensure that the people’s voice will continue to be heard long after the bullhorns go silent. The election laws imposed by Mubarak and his ruling party will have to be thrown out and replaced with a system that allows political parties to form unhindered by strict state regulation. Restrictions on who can run for president will also have to go — current rules would make less than 40 Egyptians eligible, according to an informal calculation by a Western democracy advocate based in Egypt. And most important, the Emergency Law, which has been in place since Mubarak took power, will have to be abolished. “For real reform to take place, we need an environment where people can associate freely, speak their minds and form opinions with out fear,” says the democracy advocate, who asked not to be named, since the status of such groups is still uncertain. “Lifting the emergency law will be a major signal that the government is serious.”

The short timeline for elections stipulated in the military’s latest statement could strengthen players versed in using the existing system to their advantage. Egypt’s somnambulant and semi-legal political parties have only now been shaken awake by the political earthquake; it will take them time to build platforms, work on voter outreach and mobilize campaign volunteers to gather donations and support. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party may have suffered a grievous blow with his downfall, but it can still utilize deeply entrenched networks that may imperil the chances of any naive newcomers. As for the January 25 Revolution’s revolutionaries, it’s difficult to use a leaderless movement to promote a presidential candidate.

(See how the U.S. plans to aid Egypt post-Mubarak.)

A better solution, says the Ghad Party’s Nawara, would be the establishment of a presidential council made up of civilian and military leaders that would oversee the drafting of a new constitution, followed by the election of a transitional president in six months, and in 18 months a new parliament. “The timing should be flexible,” he says. “What is important isto maintain good will among the parties, the protest movement and the army.”

In Tahrir Square that cooperation was in full view. Soldiers and young men worked in tandem to dismantle the makeshift stages that had served as platforms for the protestors. The famous Egyptian humor that had defined the revolution was still apparent: one man deputized as a trash collector stood near an exit with an open garbage bag in his hands. “Any donations for Hosni Mubarak?” he called out. But amongst the revelry and good cheer there were also pockets of silence. Some 300 protestors died over the past 18 days, and their portraits, posted around the square, were solemn reminders that the revolution did not happen without sacrifice.

(See photos of the celebrations in Tahrir Square.)

In the coming days, Egyptians — both the military and the inheritors of the revolution — will have to slow down in order to adjust to the enormous changes that have washed over the country. It will require patience, and trust on both sides. But such a calm should not be taken for apathy, warns Shadi Taha, a spokesman for the newly formed Coalition to Protect the Revolution. In order to keep the revolution alive, the Coalition will organize weekly remembrance protests at Tahrir Square until the demands of the revolution are met. “We want to give a chance for the committee of military generals to take the right steps,” he says. “But we will not be afraid to stand against them if they are working contrary to the best interests of Egyptian democracy and the Egyptian people.”

With reporting by Abigail Hauslohner and Yasmine El Rashidi / Cairo

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