Testing patience

Eight months after mass protests swept away the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, millions of Egyptians have converged again at Cairo’s Tahrir Square to push for democracy, their unfinished agenda. The transition government, which is run by generals, was supposed to oversee Egypt’s transition to democracy but like all juntas it is reluctant to let go of power. Trials of former regime members has stalled and as under Mubarak’s rule, the junta has brutally suppressed dissidents, underlining the fact that while Mubarak may be out of power, his regime seems very much intact.

Despair that their revolution has failed to usher in real change has triggered the current mass protests. The conciliatory gestures the government has made since Tahrir Square erupted in protests again – Field Marshall Mohammed Tantawi has promised to hold presidential elections by June 2012 – seem too little, too late. The protestors have indicated that they are not satisfied with vague promises any more. They want the generals to step aside and allow a civilian transitional government to take charge immediately.

Egypt begins voting in the first of three rounds of elections to parliament today. The Muslim Brotherhood’s party, the Justice and Freedom Party is expected to do well. The ongoing violent clashes raises concern over how free or fair the election will be. There is apprehension over the junta cancelling the elections. Should this happen, all hell will break loose. Putting off the election will convince Egyptians that the junta is here to stay. It will push the Muslim Brotherhood to take up arms. The more the military government drags its feet on democracy and elections, the more it is empowering the politics of extremism.
Transition to democracy is always difficult. The old elite should be kept away from power and democratic institutions need to be built from scratch. Egypt confronts all these problems.

However, these cannot be held up as excuses for not making the transition to democracy. Egypt needs a civilian executive urgently, one who is independent of the military and will draw up a transition road map. Tunisia, the first country to experience the Arab Spring protests did this with some success. Elections were held, a new parliament is in place and the task of writing a new constitution has begun there.  Only a civilian transitional authority can rescue Egypt from drifting into mayhem.

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