Egypt’s Way Forward: New Transition Plan Draws Immediate Fire

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Khalil Hamra / AP

Egyptian soldiers guard the headquarters of the elite Republican Guard in Cairo, the site of deadly clashes with protesters, on July 9, 2013

Amid a political crisis where nothing important seems to happen before 10 p.m., the timing of interim Egyptian President Adly Mansour’s constitutional declaration — just past midnight early Tuesday morning — was par for the course. Also true to form in Egypt’s current divisive, overheated political climate: it immediately set off a firestorm of angry reactions from various camps and led to warnings of further unrest.

The 33-article declaration sets out a fresh transitional timeline starting with amending the 2012 constitution later this year, followed immediately by parliamentary and then presidential elections, the latter probably happening sometime in late spring 2014. The plan’s proponents claim this is a blueprint to right the listing ship of Egypt’s democratic revolution, which saw a major jolt last week with the ousting of elected President M0hamed Morsi and a swift crackdown on his Islamist allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Mansour, who also serves as head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, laid out a rapid series of transitional steps on what is likely to be an ambitious timeline. Within two weeks, a committee — one stacked with Egyptian judges — would be formed by Mansour to recommend amendments to the currently suspended constitution, a document derided by critics as one skewed in favor of an Islamist agenda. That committee would have 30 days to present recommendations to a 50-member drafting body, which would in turn have 60 days to present a finished proposal to Mansour. Within 30 days Mansour must put the proposed amendments to a national referendum; if approved it would lead to parliamentary elections within two months followed by a presidential vote next spring. Until the new parliament is elected, Mansour will hold both legislative and executive authority.

The sheer speed of the process is likely meant to assuage fears that the military — which ousted Morsi last Wednesday in response to mass protests against his administration — would somehow seek to linger or drag out the transition to full civilian rule.

Defense Minister Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, in a statement broadcast Tuesday on state television, said the new road map outlines “a specific timetable for every step of the rebuilding of the constitution in a way that will guarantee and achieve the will of the people.”

But Mansour’s road map has already raised concerns among constitutional scholars and analysts that some of the same mistakes from Egypt’s original transition toward democracy following the 2011 popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak are being repeated now.

“The timeline is not realistic if you actually want a consensual process,” says Nathan Brown, a political-science professor and avid Egypt watcher at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Theoretically, he says, this kind of accelerated pace could work if you had “a remarkably virtuous and agreeable” set of stakeholders. But there is little in Egypt’s recent history to suggest that is the case. ‘There’s just so many different actors and so much animosity and distrust built up among them,” Brown says.

The embittered and deposed Muslim Brotherhood understandably has rejected the entire transition plan. Thousands of Brotherhood supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi continue to stage marches and open-ended sit-ins — pledging to persevere until what they deem a coup against democratic legitimacy is repealed and Morsi returns to his rightful office. The group’s profound sense of loss and betrayal was only deepened on Monday by bloody clashes with security forces that left more than 50 Morsi supporters dead and more than 300 wounded.

Senior Brotherhood official Essam El-Erian blasted the proposal as an attempt to subvert the democratically approved 2012 charter. “The people created their constitution with their votes,” El-Erian said in an online statement. He accused the military and its allies of targeting “not just the President but the nation’s identity, the rights and freedoms of the people and the democratic system enshrined in the constitution.”

Brown, author of the 2012 book on Islamist movements When Victory Is Not an Option, says the complete absence of the Brotherhood from the deliberations seems to be an unavoidable fact of the transition scenario. “Bottom line: you’ve got an important political actor that is just sitting there, sputtering with rage about this whole process,” he said.

The Brotherhood also denounced the Tuesday appointment of new Prime Minister Hazem El-Beblawy — a prominent economist, former Finance Minister and one of the founders of the Social Democrat Party. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, whose own appointment as Prime Minister was abruptly derailed on Saturday, will be named interim Vice President for External Relations — essentially the de facto Foreign Minister.

In a likely harbinger of trouble to come, Mansour’s decree also provoked protests from inside the broad but tenuous political coalition that backed the military’s move and supports his presidency. The liberal Free Egyptians Party and the grass-roots Tamarod organization — which helped spark the anti-Morsi protests with a wildly successful no-confidence petition drive — both objected to the fact that they weren’t consulted and informed beforehand. The Free Egyptians also strongly objected to wording in Mansour’s decree that endorses the exact same Salafi-friendly interpretation of Shari‘a from the 2012 constitution that was so unpopular among non-Islamist parties when it was originally drafted last year.

Indeed the Salafis — particularly the ultra-conservative Nour Party — seem to be emerging as one of the big winners in these early post-Morsi days. Their presence in the transitional coalition remains vital in order to counter Brotherhood attempts that the current moves against them constitute a battle against political Islam, rather than a specific power play against the Muslim Brotherhood. Free Egyptians spokesperson Shehab Wageeh told reporters on Tuesday that the process of drafting a less-religiously-divisive constitution has already been undermined in order to “appease a political party [i.e. Nour] that has been trying to impose its vision on society.”

Likewise the military’s controlling stake in the process should enable them to preserve the army-friendly bits of the 2012 constitution — then a concession that had enraged many of the same protesters who later cheered the military’s intervention last week. Zaid al-Ali, an expert on constitution building for the intergovernmental International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said the early winners from the current plan are “the Salafis, the military and the judges.”

Both al-Ali and Brown also point to the broad power and control afforded to Mansour — a veteran judge with very little public profile before last week. Egypt’s senior judiciary, most of whose judges were appointed by Mubarak, emerged over the past two years as an implacable enemy of the Brotherhood and Morsi’s policies.

“This all places a great deal of trust in a sort of ‘philosopher king’ in the form of Adly Mansour,” Brown says. Al-Ali adds that, given Mansour’s sweeping power and influence going forward, the next six crucial months of Egyptian history will amount to a large act of faith in a relatively unknown man.

“Maybe [Mansour] has some sort of master plan that’s going to blow us all away with how democratic it is,” he said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation.