After the euphoria of Egypt’s revolution comes the more tedious work, and the devil is in the details. Egyptian society hovers between the yearning for stability through cobbling together the surviving fragments ofthe state and the urge to eliminate the remnants of a dilapidated autocracy riddled with corruption, brutality and incompetence.
The military council that took over from President Hosni Mubarak on February 11 stands firmly in the middle and is disputing both sides of the argument. It is appealing for people to set aside their professional and personal grievances and go back to work, while promising that it will uphold the demands of the revolution and root out corruption.
The council’s latest proposed cabinet shuffle reflects its ambiguous stance: Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, a former air force officer and one of Mubarak’s younger protégés, will stay, as will Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, one of Mubarak’s most loyal defenders and a diehard opponent of the revolution until defeat was inevitable. Others have not been so lucky: threeformer ministers are in detention for questioning, along with Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate and ruling party official who oversaw the rigged parliamentary elections of 2010.
Even Hosni Mubarak is in limbo, surrounded by old retainers in comfortable retirement in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh — an ominous reminder to some revolutionaries that their work is unfinished. Egypt’s most venerable wise man, journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, says his presence in Sharm El Sheikh is a threat to the revolution.
The committee assigned to redraft the constitution, in whose hands lies the future of the Arab world’s most populous nation, also straddles the divide: Will it merely rescind the most authoritarian constitutional amendments or propose a radical overhaul to give Egypt a system of government fit to last into the 21st century? The military council says it is in a hurryto cede power to elected civilians but the most Egyptians can expect for now is a constitutional provision requiring the next elected government to make the long-term changes.
In the meantime, ambitious Egyptians are launching into the brave new world of political pluralism, forming parties and organizing in a way that was unimaginable during Mubarak’s police state and the reign of his National Democratic Party. After 15 years of fruitlessly seeking recognition under Mubarak, the Wasat Party won it through the courts eight days after Mubarak’s fall. With its recognition of Egypt’s Islamic heritage and its commitment to equality for all citizens in a civil society, Wasat has an ideology that could strike a chord with Egyptian voters in free and fair elections.
In the south of the country, reinvigorated members of the old Gama’a Al Islamiya, which waged war on the state in the 1990s, are meeting openly to plan for a future as a peaceful political party. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and best-organized political force in the country, has taken steps in the same direction. The young secular liberals who launched the revolution on January 25 are also jockeying for position in a new environmentof competing political ideologies, despite their distrust of hierarchy and their inexperience in conventional campaigning.
Above the fray looms the military council, inscrutable as the Sphinx, combining the sternness and the benevolence of a patriarch. While foreigners fret over the army’s allegedly vast vested interests in the status quo, especially its network of privilege and patronage, Egyptians tend to give the military the benefit of the doubt, trusting their promises to withdraw from the scene in six months when their task is complete. In the interim, the military may be an effective deterrent to any excess, especially on the law-and-order front.
With the world watching, speculation is rife as to what the revolution will bring about. Will Egypt’s next leaders, like Hosni Mubarak, cooperate with Israel and the United States against Hamas, Iran and their other regional enemies? Will they reconsider the neoliberal economic policies that brought Egypt high growth but a widening gap between rich and poor? Most important of all, what role will Egypt play in what could well be a constellation of newly democratic Arab governments seeking, in their relations with the United States and Europe, a third way between submission and confrontation?
Jonathan Wright is managing editor of Arab Media and Society