Political crisis threatens transition in Egypt

6 April 2012

Egypt is enduring one of its most politically fragile periods since Hosni Mubarak was forced from office

A little more than 12 months after President Hosni Mubarak was removed from office, Egypt is teetering on the brink of a political and economic crisis. Plans to draw up a new constitution are in danger of collapse, and the nomination of candidates for presidential elections in May is becoming more and more controversial by the day. While the political elite is consumed with its own divisions, the urgent task of establishing a strategy to rescue an economy that is edging towards disaster is being neglected.

Suspicions that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to monopolise Egypt’s new political landscape were reinforced on 31 March when the movement backtracked on a longstanding pledge that it would not nominate a presidential candidate from within its ranks. The nomination of Khairat al-Shater has not only provoked a bitter reaction among the Brotherhood’s political rivals, but has also divided its own members.

Navigating the complexities of building a new political regime after 29 years of authoritarian rule was always going to be fraught with difficulty. Widespread demands for the swift replacement of an interim regime controlled by the army with a democratically elected parliament, a new head of state and a new constitution have meant that the transition has been faced with an almost impossible schedule from the start.

Challenging timeframe for political change

“They’re going to have to tackle some difficult questions in the next couple of months, such as the role of religion in the state, presidential powers, parliamentary powers and oversight of the army,” says Raza Agha, an economist at the UK’s Royal Bank of Scotland. “These are difficult questions to answer, particularly in the timeframe they’ve given themselves.”

Presidential elections are scheduled for 23-24 May, with a new head of state due to be in place the following month. In parallel to the election process, a newly appointed constituent assembly has been tasked with writing a constitution that it hopes to complete around the same time. But the details of how this process will work in practice have been largely neglected.

Under guidelines drawn up for the transition process, no guidance was offered as to whether the presidential elections or the constitution should come first, leaving open the possibility that whoever is elected president will be subject to a curtailing of his powers when the new constitution comes into force, opening the door to further political wrangling.

Beyond the stipulation that the new constituent assembly should be appointed by parliament, there was equally little guidance as to how its members should be selected. This has resulted in complete disarray. Within days of parliament’s appointment of the constituent assembly on 24 March, more than a fifth of its members had already walked out in protest at its composition. On 27 March, a group of secular parties announced that it plans to write an alternative constitution in parallel to that devised by the assembly.

Court challenges to Egypt’s elections

Challenges have been lodged in the courts to the legality of both the constituent assembly appointments and the parliamentary elections that took place earlier in the year.

If the elections are invalidated, the country would be “plunged into a major political crisis that could keep the military in power for months to come”, and if the constituent assembly is declared unconstitutional, the transition process would be in “total shambles”, according to a report published by the Beirut-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on 30 March.

Even if the judiciary chooses not to challenge the legality of the constituent assembly, there are plenty of other challenges to negotiate. The recent walkouts were motivated by a belief that the body is not representative of Egyptian society. The 100-member assembly includes just six women and six representatives of the Christian community, which makes up 10 per cent of the population. Young people are also under-represented, given the fact that more than half of the population is below the age of 35. Beyond the problems with the assembly, the FJP is locked in another power struggle with the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (Scaf).

This article was published in MEED on 6 April 2012. To see the article in full, please visit the MEED website

Note (17 April):

Since this article was written the courts have ruled the candidacy of Khairat al-Shater to be invalid due to a failure to clear a criminal conviction under the Mubarak regime. The Muslim Brotherhood has said that Mohamed Mursi, the head of the Freedom and Justice Party, will run in his place. Two other leading candidates were also ruled out by the courts: Omar Suleiman, the head of the intelligence services under Mubarak, and Hazem Salah Abu Ismai, the Salafist candidate.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.