The Mubarak Hangover: Explaining Egypt’s Turbulent Transition

11.28.11

The Mubarak Hangover: Explaining Egypt’s Turbulent Transition

11.28.11
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On April 21st, the Cairo Emergency Court decreed that the name of former President Hosni Mubarak be removed from all government buildings and public infrastructure in Egypt. This diktat authorized what had already been taking place since the beginning of the January 25th Revolution. From the outset of popular demonstrations, Egyptians set out to expunge all traces of the Mubarak name from the country. First demonstrators burned his National Democratic Party headquarters along the Nile Corniche in downtown Cairo. Next they repatriated one of Cairo’s most heavily trafficked metro stops, famously named Mubarak, papering over the signs and renaming it “al-Shohadaa” or “the martyrs.” In all, over 400 buildings, squares and bridges throughout the country dropped Muhammad Hosni Mubarak from their name, while a further 160, mostly schools, abandoned the name of his wife, Suzanne Mubarak.

Yet, removing the Mubarak name has proven a much easier task than breaking through the institutional blockage that has accumulated during his nearly 30 years of authoritarian rule. Eight months removed from Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians are increasingly lamenting the largely cosmetic nature of the political reforms delivered by the transitional administration. With the eruption of sweeping popular protests this past Tuesday, the political transition in Egypt finds itself at its most precipitous point since the regime change in February. Tahrir Square, the backdrop of the January 25th revolution, has once again been transformed into the frontline of fierce clashes between state security forces and demonstrators demanding a swift and authentic shift to civilian rule.

On the surface, the demonstrators are projecting their fury at Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the Chairman of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). To be sure, the SCAF has shown itself to be a bungling and negligent custodian of power during the past 8 months. It has shirked tangible reform and brazenly worked to entrench the Armed Forces as the central political and economic actor in the country.

Yet, the nascent process of political institution building appears increasingly contingent on exorcising the political legacies left by Mubarak. In particular, the process of transitional justice needs to be clarified and accelerated, a conclusive policy on the rebranding of former NDP officials needs to be articulated and the recycling of Mubarak-era officials administering the transition needs to be discontinued. As Egypt stumbles towards the first round of People’s Assembly elections today, it remains clear that the country is locked in an internecine struggle to create a representative politics and shed its authoritarian past. In order to do so, the country will need to come to grips with the still unresolved dregs of Mubarak’s political legacy.

Transitional Justice?

If Egypt is to move beyond Mubarak’s political legacy, it must first make a clear decision on what to do with him. On May 24, Mubarak was formally charged with the premeditated murder of more than 800 demonstrators killed during the 18 days of the revolution. The penalty for a guilty verdict would almost certainly be death. Yet, since the trial started on August 3rd, Mubarak has appeared in court only a handful of times. From the very beginning, the Mubarak trial has been an exercise in hurry-up and wait. The trial has alternated between the out-and-out theatrical and the frustratingly mundane, brought on by frequent and extended adjournments. For instance, the trial is currently in the midst of a two-month hiatus (October 30-December 28) instigated by a legal spat over the suitability of presiding judge Ahmed Refaat.

Instead of a spirited and methodical prosecution, we have instead seen a disjointed and oft-delayed spectacle that has become infamous not for delivering justice or closure to Egyptians but rather for courtroom violence and clashes between demonstrators and Mubarak supporters.

Clouding the legal proceedings even further is the total media ban that was imposed in mid-August by Judge Refaat. Instead of broadcasting a fair and transparent trial to the Egyptian public and international community, this decision has closed off the proceedings and created an environment in which misinformation, rumour and innuendo thrive. In effect, eight months removed from the initial success of the Egyptian Revolution, the country appears no closer to a legal resolution of Mubarak’s fate.

Rebranding the NDP

In the lead-up to today’s first round of People’s Assembly elections, a cynical observation has been making the rounds among prospective voters in Cairo: in spite of the open nature of the elections, the same people will remain in power. This observation is part metaphor and part reality. In the immediate wake of the revolution, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party was disbanded and outlawed by court order. Yet, a November 14th ruling from the Supreme Administrative Court overturned this initial judgment and re-instated the right of former party members to contest elections as independents or as members of new parties. This has enticed a surge of former NDP officials to register as candidates for the upcoming elections. According to Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, upwards of 1500 former NDP candidates will be contesting the People’s Assembly and Sura Council elections, as independent candidates or on the rosters of newly-minted political parties.

This legal about-face has exasperated many of the youth movements that drove the revolution as well as the new political parties contesting the elections. They charge that many of the rebranded NDP candidates are responsible for corruption and vote suppression under the Mubarak regime. As well, many of these NDP officials who enriched themselves through the corrupt practices of the old regime will have a significant financial advantage over their opponents in contesting these elections. In effect, the reversal of the ban on NDP members will allow many officials who profited from the fraudulent practices of the old regime to retain their places in government.

Mubarak-Era Holdovers

Since the start of the transitional administration, many Egyptians have lamented the lack of systemic political reform. Mubarak, the figurehead of the old regime, is gone, but most of the leading figures in the military and security establishments as well as the civilian administrators remain unchanged. Most notably, Egypt’s current de facto leader Field Marshal Tantawi served as Egyptian Minister of Defence under Mubarak for nearly 20 years. During this time, Tantawi became one of Mubarak’s closest allies and was long viewed as one of his most reliable and trusted advisors. Similarly, the other military commanders on the SCAF all cut their teeth during Mubarak’s reign as well.

Since taking power in February, the SCAF has made a habit of recycling Mubarak-era figures to populate important civilian posts in the transitional administration. The post of Prime Minister is a particularly telling example. As a play for time during the heady days of the revolution, Mubarak appointed Ahmed Shafik, a former Minister of Civil Aviation as his new Prime Minister on January 29th. Although Shafik outlasted Mubarak, he served as PM for little over a month before the SCAF dropped him in the face of high unpopularity and noisy calls for his resignation. In his place, Field Marshal Tantawi named Essam Sharaf, another Mubarak-era Minister of Transportation as the PM designate on March 3rd. Along with his entire Cabinet, Sharaf resigned his post last week in the face of renewed popular protests calling once again for a transition to civilian administration.

Cue the appointment of another former Mubarak man. This past Friday, Tantawi handpicked Dr. Kamal el-Ganzouri, who served as Mubarak’s Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999 to once again assume the Prime Minister’s office until at least the end of People’s Assembly and Sura Council elections in early 2012. Quite predictably, the appointment of a third Mubarak-era official as PM in the past 8 months has been met with almost unanimous condemnation. By reappointing former Mubarak-era officials, the SCAF is sticking to its transitional strategy of trying to co-opt popular opinion without forcing structural changes to the current political system. Yet this position seems increasingly untenable, as evidenced by the swelling crowds that continue to flock to Tahrir Square to demand a civilian administration.

Beyond Mubarak

These are just three of the negative political legacies left by Mubarak that must be surmounted to ensure a representative political system prevails in Egypt. Egyptians are applying increasing pressure on these vestiges of the old regime with popular protests in Tahrir Square as well as through vigorous political discussions that have proliferated during the current election campaign. As the country goes to the polls today for the first round of People’s Assembly elections, the time is ripe to court new political solutions to old societal problems. If Egyptians truly want to force genuine political reform, they will push not just for fresh ideas but also for fresh faces to implement them.

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