Talking Transition With Egypt's Saad Eddin Ibrahim

CAIRO, Egypt -- with the exception of weekly demonstrations in Tahrir Square to commemorate the martyrs of the revolution, a relative calm has settled over Cairo since I returned two weeks ago. Shops are open, the streets are once again a sea of unmoving vehicles, and the sounds of cabs and donkeys and street vendors can be heard echoing off the city's ancient, dusty edifices. The only discernible change is that overnight everyone has become a political pundit.

Yet upon closer examination, that's not exactly true. Across the city at checkpoints, government buildings, and highway roundabouts, fleets of tanks -- most with guns lowered, sleeping monsters -- still cast their hulking shadows over everyday life. It is as if, by their stolid presence, they are subtly reminding Egyptians that the transition to democracy will not be accomplished overnight.

The message had lost some of its subtlety by February 26, however, when for the first time the military used force to clear protesters from Tahrir Square -- a move it later apologized for. Developments that indicate similar resistance to democratization include the military's decision to exclude women from the constitutional reform committee and to retain restrictions on religious political parties like the Ikhwan, or Muslim Brotherhood.

When asked in an email about the crackdown on February 26, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a noted democracy activist and formerly exiled critic of Hosni Mubarak, told me that the incident was symptomatic of deep-seated hard-liner sympathies within Egypt's military high council now ruling the country. "These sympathies need to be exposed, condemned and guarded against," said Ibrahim, who was sentenced in 2008 to two years in prison for "defaming Egypt."

Part of the problem now facing democracy advocates who wish to see Egypt's military subordinated to a civilian authority is the tremendous economic privilege currently enjoyed by the military elite. Over the last thirty years -- under the benevolent watch of Hosni Mubarak, himself a former head of the Air Force -- the military has amassed ever expanding contract, business, and manufacturing portfolios (none of which senior military officials will want to part with). As David Rohde recently put it in the New York Times, "[W]ill a military so deeply invested in a system that conferred great economic and political power be willing to let go?"

It is in this spirit of unease that the military has approached the transition period, taking special care not to integrate Egypt's most historically downtrodden into the political process lest they demand too much in the way of reform. Interestingly, in Ibrahim's opinion, the military's decision to preserve Egypt's restrictions on religious parties was a prudent one. "I agree with this decision," he said. "There's something fundamentally anti-democratic about parties formed exclusively on the basis of race or religion."

Still, he was willing to concede that there is room for religion in politics so long as it remains in step with the principles of equal rights and civilian government. "If the Muslim Brothers or other groups want to form parties they must commit themselves to the civilian nature of state and society and the equal rights of non-Muslims, including the right to run for the office of president. If they can accept these principles they can form parties like the AKP, the ruling party in Turkey," said Ibrahim.

Since a Muslim Brotherhood more moderate, pluralist, and probably much smaller -- now that the youth who fomented the revolution are beginning to form their own political parties -- looks like the wave of the future, it is likely that Ibrahim's criteria will be put to the test: will an Ikhwan that wishes to compete on equal footing to participate in civilian government be allowed to do so? The military's longstanding distrust of the outlawed political party suggests otherwise. This despite the fact that the Ikhwan long ago swore off violence and has sought "gradual change" from "within the political system" for years, according to Dr. Sana Abed-Kotob, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood and U.S. State Department official.

So, what can be done to ensure that Egyptian politics become more inclusive and that Egypt itself follows the Turkish model in subordinating the military to a democratically elected, civilian government? Ibrahim offered one suggestion: Adopt a provision that "ensure[s] at least 30% of the membership of any government councils, committees, etc., formed by the transitional government is composed of people under the age of 40." Yes! I'll see Ibrahim's provision and raise him one -- stipulating that 50% of the membership must be female.