How can we forget the images of joy, broadcast worldwide on the morning of 11 February 2011, of Tahrir Square rejoicing at the announcement, by Vice President Omar Suleiman, of the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt since 1981? The eyes of thousands of young Egyptians shone with high expectations for the future of their country and deep pride in the courage and tenacity shown during those 18 days of street protests. The Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces (SCAF), once it understood the tide had turned in favour of abandoning the rais to his fate, took “temporary” control of the country to start overseeing the delicate transition to democracy. For a moment, everyone thought we were poised on the brink of a new era – a “new Egypt”.
Experience shows that a process of democratisation is not realised simply by holding monitored elections, nor does it happen within a few months. Instead, it is the result of a process engaging all levels of society. To be frank, four months after the fall of that regime, little has been seen of the reforms demanded by the protests. While the transition is on a forced march towards parliamentary elections, all the political forces are asking the army to slow down and to postpone the elections, given the absence of a well-defined constitutional framework. The only exception is the Muslim Brotherhood and what remains of the disbanded National Democratic Party (NDP), the most well-organised and structured components in this jagged post-Mubarak political landscape.
This moment in Egypt’s history is particularly sensitive, characterised by a progressive polarisation of conflict, often violent, between the liberal-securalist front and the Islamic front, as it is widely understood. This is exacerbated by the increasingly profound divide between the youth movement and the military, which is no longer perceived as a guarantor of freedom and justice, but as part of the old regime, fighting for its very survival: from the crackdowns against protesters to the attempts to silence critics, including journalists, not to mention the “virginity tests” on unmarried women arrested during the protests of 9 March, conducted under the pretext of protecting the honour of the armed forces by demonstrating that those women and girls were not virgins before entering military prisons.
There is another aspect of the democratisation process that raises concerns, involving the judiciary and the military: that of “transitional justice”, namely the procedures adopted to bring to justice the leaders of the old regime accused of committing crimes of various kinds. President Mubarak, his wife (who was later released) and his two sons, together with a number of former ministers and members of the old ruling class – the so-called “Gang of Alexandria” – were arrested on charges of corruption, embezzlement, abuse of office and murder. These current proceedings are being conducted without any transparency, based on ad hoc, hurried and legally unaccountable rules. As democracy is not built on impunity, nor on revenge, we believe that the interim government could facilitate the work of the judiciary by asking for the establishment of an independent international commission of inquiry to be in charge of the process of collecting evidence of the crimes committed in order to ensure that those responsible will be held to account.
This would be a real, substantial step in the direction of the “new Egypt” we all long, but which today is still too similar to the “old Egypt”, showing how difficult and problematic the transition process from authoritarianism to democracy can be. At this pivotal stage, it is necessary that Tahrir Square reorganises itself and re-addresses its energy towards the path leading to the rule of law, enabling citizens to participate, in the most inclusive way possible, in the decision-making process. Of all this we will discuss at the General Council of the Transnational Radical Party that will take place in Tunis: because democracy and rule of law concern all countries involved in the Arab Spring.
Emma Bonino is an ECFR Council Member and Vice President of the Italian Senate; Saad Eddin Ibrahim is founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for development studies.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.