Unlike Tunisia, half measures in Egypt

Tunisia is well ahead of Egypt in making the transition from dictatorship to democracy. Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi has formed a cabinet of technocrats who held no posts during the regime of ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ordered the dissolution of the country’s secret police, and abolished the Ministry of Information which had been in charge of press censorship. The high court has disbanded Ben Ali’s political party. The country’s democracy movement is clearly satisfied with these measures since protesters camping in the capital’s central square went home and demonstrations have ceased — at least for the time being.

An interim government of technocrats, the dismantling of the internal security apparatus, freedom of the press, and the dissolution of the former ruling party are top demands of the January 25 Youth Coalition which speaks for people’s power in Egypt. But Egyptians have had to make do with half measures. Egypt has a new prime minister in Essam Sharaf, a candidate proposed by the Youth Coalition. He did not appoint a cabinet of technocrats but replaced key ministers and reshuffled the rest, most of whom appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak before he was ousted.

Sharaf’s government looks rather like the cabinet of the Tunisian old guard formed in the wake of Ben Ali’s flight. When Sharaf equivocated over the dissolution of Egypt’s State Security Investigations (SSI) apparatus — known as the “Stasi,” the name of the brutal East German secret police — democracy activists invaded a dozen SSI sites to prevent officers from shredding or burning files and documents or destroying computer disks containing evidence of human rights abuses, torture, corruption, and dubious connections to western or other foreign intelligence agencies.

The army, which was reluctant to take action against its SSI partner, was compelled to seal and guard the sites while the public prosecutor arrested dozens of high and mid-ranking SSI and interior ministry officers accused of wrong doing. This makes it all the more likely that the SSI — which employed 500,000 officials and informers — will be disbanded and a new, more streamlined security service focused on “terrorism” will be created. Sometimes “do it yourself” action works when demonstrations do not.

While the Egyptian press has seized freedom since the toppling of the Mubarak regime, legal and political constraints continue to inhibit it, and the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP)  is disbanding itself rather than being dissolved.
The differences between developments in Tunisia and Egypt are explained by examination of the roles of the armed forces in the two countries. In Tunisia the military was not a major political player while Egypt has been ruled by military men wearing suits and ties since 1952. Consequently, when Ben Ali stepped down, a civilian president and government were appointed.  In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) — men in uniform rather than suits — assumed presidential powers. While many Egyptians, who trust the armed forces, feel reassured, the democracy camp suspects that the military, which has major political and economic interests, is not as ready to cede power as did Tunisia’s old guard politicians. 

Egyptian democrats are right. Egypt’s generals have their own agenda. On March 19, they will hold a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments, reducing the president’s power and providing for better supervision of elections. If the amendments are adopted, parliamentary elections will be held in June and a presidential poll a few weeks later, permitting the generals to hand over by September or October.

The democracy movement believes the military is eager for a rapid political transition so that veteran political parties which dominated the scene under Mubarak could retain power while political forces emerging from the uprising would not have time to form and pose a challenge to the old order. Democrats reject the proposed constitutional amendments which, they say, do not go far enough to prevent the rise of another autocrat and insist that elections should not be held for a year to 18 months. Democrats also argue that the presidential election should precede a parliamentary poll.

Some in the military may be encouraging a counter-revolution. Democracy activists argue the torching of a Christian church near Cairo and Christian-Muslim clashes  were orchestrated by SSI elements and NDP thugs determined to unermine the transition to democracy. So far, people’s power has thwarted the machinations of counter-revolutionaries but they remain a threat.

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