Thursday, 3 March 2011

Some positive signs in Egypt

The pace of change in Egypt seems to be picking up, after a couple of weeks of uncertainty about the intentions of the ruling military council. First there was the decision last week to freeze the assets of the Mubarak family, pending an investigation into how they acquired their wealth, along with the accelerating publication of news stories about corruption in the old regime. El-Shorouk, for example, reports today that former Housing Minister Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman assigned state land to the daughters of former Vice President Omar Suleiman at nominal prices below their market value, in violation of the normal procedures. The accumulating mass of evidence against many leading members of the old regime makes a counter-revolution less and less possible.
    The military council  has also been reaching out to a wider range of Egyptians. On Tuesday council chairman and acting head of state Tantawi met probable presidential candidates Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa of the Arab League, along with other leading figures. The council wanted to hear their voices on the phasing and timeframe for presidential and parliamentarian elections - a subject which is under active debate and on which there are many diverse opinions. Those who called what happened on February 11 a military coup and predicted that the generals would try to strengthen their grip should note that the council has told all visitors that it wants to leave office after six months. It is the politicians and the activists who brought down Mubarak who want to extend the transitional period so that parties can organize and so that the country can prepare a long-term constitution which is broadly accepted. The generals have preferred to patch up the existing constitution as quickly as possible but the public pressure for a more radical overhaul may be having an effect.
    A positive sign of the times was a four-hour discussion on OTV television on Wednesday evening, with Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, novelist and activist Alaa el-Aswany, businessman Naguib Sawiris (who owns OTV), broadcaster Hamdi Kandeel and public intellectual Amr Hemzawy. I only caught the last two hours but the indefatigable Zeinobia watched throughout and stayed up till 4 a.m. to tell the world about it. I doubt in the history of Egyptian television that any prime minister has submitted to such relentless and incisive criticism. Kandeel and Aswany, as politely as one can under the circumstances, told Shafik he should resign and told him that it was unacceptable that three old-guard ministers - Interior Minister Mahmoud Wagdi, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Justice Minister Mmdouh Marei - remain in the cabinet. They also disagreed over the future of the State Security department, which the opposition wanted disbanded. Shafik argued that the country needed such an agency but the government would redefine its responsibilities and set strict limits on its powers. One worrying element was that Shafik (like all Mubarak's prime ministers) clearly has little control over those three ministries or over the choice of the ministers who run them. That's up to the military council. Aswany rightly pointed out the ambiguity this creates: the prime minister bears political responsibility for the activities and statements of those ministers but cannot get rid of them without the council's approval. So far the council has acted with great caution, making as few changes as possible, but in many cases it has eventually come down on the side of the demands of those who took part in the uprising against Mubarak.
    Taken together, all these elements suggest that the process of change is irreversible for the moment and the military council is gradually wising up to political realities it faces. The demands of the protest movement will not go away and the council is beginning to listen more attentively. The movement will not be silenced.   
    Another healthy sign is the course of the debate within the Muslim Brotherhood over the platform for the political party which the movement plans to launch. El-Shorouk reported on Thursday that the committee drafting the platform has agreed to drop the idea of a 'board of ulema' which would have had powers similar to those of the Guardian Council of the Revolution in Iran. Liberals criticized the idea when it appeared in a draft platform for a Brotherhood political party in 2008. The committee, El-Shorouk said, has also dropped an article saying that the state should have 'a civil character with some basic religious functions'. The new phraseology is to the effect of 'a civil state, not a religious theocracy or a military state'. El-Shorouk interpreted this as a sign that the Brotherhood would accept the theoretical possibility of a Christian head of state, a possibility which the earlier draft would have excluded. The changes suggest that, as predicted, the reality of political competition in a democratic atmosphere can make the Brotherhood more flexible and more centrist. 

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