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Neil Hicks Headshot

Egypt's Malaise

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Tensions are building in Egypt as political uncertainties after the February 11 removal of the thirty-year president Hosni Mubarak - remain unresolved. As time marches on the contradictions and latent conflicts that comprise Egypt's post-uprising political scene become more urgent and impossible to ignore, but the way forward remains unclear. As a result, there are flare-ups like the protests that occurred around Tahrir Square on June 28 and 29 and outside a court in Cairo on July 4, now continuing in the town of Suez.

The immediate causes of these clashes have been public dissatisfaction with official efforts to bring to account police officers accused of involvement in the killing of unarmed protesters during the uprising earlier this year, the so called "martyrs of the revolution," but these flare ups may be a foretaste of further unrest spurred by a feeling that the fruits of the protests are proving elusive and that real institutional change may be postponed indefinitely.

The outbreaks of violence have to date not been that serious, but they have been sufficient to deal a serious blow to people's confidence. The recovering Egyptian stock market took a hit; observers noted that news coverage would further discourage international tourists adding a disappointing winter season to a calamitous summer; activists received an unwelcome reminder that they had no idea how the country is going to find its way from rule by the military to democratic government.

One root cause of the problem is the lack of transparency of the military council ruling the country. Initially, it may have been reassuring for the military to promise that it would hold elections and return to its barracks by September; but now, with official Egypt about to head for the beach and Ramadan occupying the month of August, it just raises questions and alarm. It is not reassuring for the military council to issue assurances that the election deadline will be met while giving scant details about how it plans to carry them out.

These will be elections unlike anything Egypt has ever seen before, just in terms of sheer volume of voters and the logistical challenges that will entail. One could also say that they are the most important elections to take place in Egypt for many decades. They will set the tone for the success or failure of the democratic transition in Egypt and beyond. And yet: the elections law is not finalized; the voting system is not finalized; serious issues relating to the registration of voters and the formation of the electoral roll have not been resolved; authority over official supervision of the process has not been established -- will it be the judiciary, if so will voting be spread over several days to enable a judicial presence at every poling station? The list of unresolved questions and concerns is much longer, but the military council continues to insist that the September deadline will be met.

Senators John Kerry and John McCain who recently visited Cairo received a pledge from Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council, that Egypt would permit international monitors to observe forthcoming elections. This is a welcome promise and represents progress from the previous regime that adamantly refused to admit international monitors, but it will not be enough to ensure free and fair elections this time.

The U.S. government must use its close relations with the military council to urge it to lay out a transparent, consultative process to allay the mounting concerns that Egyptians understandably feel about their opaque political future. The council must break with its habit of unilateral decision making and commit to preparing for the elections as openly and inclusively as possible. This means setting out a realistic timetable; finding a compromise to the divisive Constitution First or Elections First dispute; and consulting regularly and openly with political factions and civil society. The military council has developed a habit of meeting separately and privately with different political groups and civil society activists at its behest. This practice may be intended to show openness and a cooperative spirit but it is becoming divisive since it tends to discourage different elements of society from coming together to present common concerns to the authorities.

In the absence of information about how the elections will be rolled out rumors of shady deals and backroom fixes inevitably spread. Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to Egypt's fragile transition. Egyptians are looking forward to free and fair elections, recent polls show that as many as 80% of the electorate plan to vote in the parliamentary elections and even more in the presidential poll to follow. This hope and goodwill is the main thing that Egypt's transition process has going for it; it would be a terrible waste to squander it on shoddy, opaque preparation.