ON most days, there’s a deceptive normalcy to Tahrir Square, centre stage of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Traffic, not protesters, paralyses the streets. But politics are still roiling.
This is a crucial period for Egypt.
Between now and July 1, Parliament is supposed to select a committee to rewrite the constitution and Egyptians will vote whether to adopt it. They will elect a president and learn what verdict and sentence their deeply flawed court system gives Hosni Mubarak, the former autocrat charged with complicity in the killing of 800 protesters during the uprising that forced his ouster.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which won a majority in the new Parliament, is proving more pragmatic than expected.
Emad Gad, a lawmaker from the opposition liberal bloc, says “we can cooperate with” them.
The Brotherhood is also working with the military council that has failed at running the country and is supposed to cede power to the new president in June.
This is prudent politics and may give the army the confidence to return to barracks. But many Egyptians fear the army will never allow a full transfer of power to a civilian government. That would be a disaster for Egypt and a dishonour to all those who battled to overthrow Mubarak’s dictatorship.
There is talk that the Brotherhood has already compromised on a critical army demand for the new constitution by limiting civilian oversight of the military budget.
There’s also no word on whether anyone in the army will be held accountable for the deaths during the uprising.
Meanwhile, the military council and its allies are busy punishing their critics for specious offenses.
Ziad el Elaimy, a member of Parliament from the Social Democratic Party, is facing an ethics review after criticising Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the council chief, and calling for his resignation. Elaimy expects the council will force parliament to remove him from his seat.
Egypt’s military prosecutors are investigating 12 top activists another attempt to intimidate the opposition.
The military council wasted a year not making decisions about the economy.
Foreign reserves are down; unemployment is up.
Amr Zaki, an influential member of Parliament from the Muslim Brotherhood, said his party would soon replace the military-appointed central bank governor and cabinet, whom he accused of preparing to sign bad business deals. Those changes also have to be approved by the military council and it’s unclear whether they will agree.
As for the Brotherhood’s ideas on how to fix the economy, Zaki disparaged a $3 billion loan being negotiated with the International Monetary Fund.
He said the government should focus instead on wooing investors for tourism and other projects and repatriating $7 billion in Egyptian money sent overseas.
But that money and investment isn’t likely to come back until there is more stability and clarity about who is running the country. The $1.5 billion in annual aid from Washington? “Within two years we will not need it,” Zaki said confidently.
Washington and Cairo are also trying to figure out a new relationship. The government’s decision to bring criminal charges against 15 Americans working for nongovernmental organisations is making it harder. (Fourteen have been allowed to leave the country.) A free trade agreement would help. So would training more Egyptian officers in the United States, not just about weapons but about civilian control of the military.
The most hopeful sign is the political enthusiasm of many young Egyptians.
Some are holding seminars at night in Cairo neighbourhoods on the role of a constitution in a democracy.
The one I attended, which drew 15 people, was pretty basic, with a lawyer beginning his presentation with “what is the legal meaning of a constitution.” Magad Wadie el-Raheb, a member of one of the liberal parties, said the session was open to anyone: “For 30 years there was no political awareness in Egypt. We’re making up for lost time.”