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Egypt Eight Months Later: Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy?

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Eight months after the historic, totally unanticipated popular uprisings by pro-democracy movements in the Arab world, the process of democratization in Egypt faces formidable challenges. Initial optimism and euphoria are tempered by sobering challenges and threats.

If in the past, the question had been: "Is Arab culture or Islam compatible with democracy?" Today the question and concern is: Are the old guard and entrenched elites (military, security, political elites) as well as Islamists ready for the transition to Arab democracies?" Celebration of the Arab Spring in Egypt has been tempered by fear that it may be hijacked by remnants of the Mubarak regime's institutions. Power struggles between the old guard and reformers, in particular the increasingly aggressive role of the interim military transition government in Egypt, risk eroding faith in the military and hope for a timely transition to civilian rule.

Egypt's military rulers have moved to assert and extend their power so broadly that a growing number of lawyers and activists are questioning their willingness to ultimately submit to civilian authority. At a workshop in Istanbul in early October, The Arab Awakening: Transitioning from Dictatorship to Democracy," an Egyptian activist identified the nature of the threat to a democratic transition: "The Egyptian revolution was peaceful. Whereas most revolutions end with thousands getting their heads cut off, in Egypt the heads we spared are speaking and working against the revolution -- how do we deal with this?" Another activist asked, "Is Egypt transitioning from Mubarak authoritarianism to new military-security regime using a democratic facade?"

Other indicators that have raised fears that the revolution is being hijacked by the military are:
the military's reintroduction of an extended emergency law by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the name of safeguarding law and order; since the revolution some 12,000 people have been arrested and are to be tried by the military courts ; a leaked copy of the Justice Ministry's fact-finding committee report lists 39 NGOs, including some of Egypt's most reputable human rights organizations, that are to be subjected to "treason" investigations by Egypt's state security prosecutor. Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch warned: "It sends alarming signals about the transitional government's commitment to human rights that Egyptian authorities have started a criminal investigation with the same methods Hosni Mubarak used to strangle civil society."

An even stronger indicator of the transition military government's delay tactics against rapid transition is its announced schedule: the parliamentary elections (starting on 28 November and lasting until January 2012), which will then be followed by work on the constitution, has led to concerns that the presidential elections could be pushed off as late as 2013. The military had originally pledged last March to hold the presidential election by September. However, the generals new timetable is for it to come only after the election of a Parliament, the formation of a constitutional assembly and the ratification of a new constitution -- a process that could stretch into 2013 or longer. The result, as Gen. Mahmoud Hegazy stated: "We will keep the power until we have a president."

The U.S. Secretary of State has supported the generals' the election plan, describing it as "an appropriate timetable." As the New York Times reported,

"The United States, where concerns run high that early elections could bring unfriendly Islamists to power and further strain relations with Israel, has so far signaled approval of the military's slower approach to handing over authority. In an appearance this week with the Egyptian foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged an early end to the emergency law but called the plan for elections "an appropriate timetable."

Clinton's statement confirms the doubts and fears of many Egyptians that, despite U.S. publicly stated support for Egypt's revolution, self-determination and democracy, a legacy of support for authoritarian regimes as a sure source of stability and safeguard for American interests and fears that independent elections could bring more independent governments, even Islamists, to power, would result in U.S. interference and intervention. As major Gallup polling reported: two-thirds of Egyptians surveyed think the U.S. will try to interfere in Egypt's political future as opposed to letting the people of the country decide alone. A similar number disagree that the U.S. is serious about encouraging democratic systems of government in their region.

This U.S. position not only reinforces the hand of the Egyptian military but risks further undermining America's ability to rebuild its credibility and role in the Middle East.