The Second Republic
Amidst the euphoria, Amira Howeidy
finds scepticism, the US, Lebanon, Kifaya and a new dynamic
Its day five since President Hosni Mubarak made his bombshell announcement to change Article 76 of the Constitution to allow for the first ever multi candidate presidential elections next September -- and Egyptians are still grappling with the meaning of this.
While the state-controlled TV hailed this as a historic step unlike any other, the print media incessantly following suit, made a point of detaching Mubarak's initiative from any "external" pressure. It was not a spontaneous decision, the national media reiterated, but the outcome of long and thoughtful consideration from the president. In the "external" world, aka the US, the view revolved around the proverbial domino-effect, the most popular analysis arguing that the Arabs got a "taste" of democracy following the Iraqi and Palestinian elections. Between the official optimistic line here and US gloating, the situation on the ground appears more nuanced if not confusing as pundits and politicians alike try to decipher the mixed signals accompanying the president's decision.
For the longest time, Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) consistently opposed and rejected any constitutional amendments despite repeated calls by the political class for more than a decade. It was hardly surprising thus when only a month ago, the president dubbed such calls "futile" and accused unspecified foreign parties of allocating $70 million to fund these demands. A few days later, his son Gamal who heads the NDP's Policies Committee stated that the Constitution is not a sacred text and could be amended.
Mubarak's surprise initiative seems to explain, through hindsight, why the obdurate security apparatus allowed three unprecedented anti-Mubarak demonstrations to take place from December to February when normally they would have been banned. But it also contradicts with the arrest of three activists at the Book Fair last February for distributing invitations announcing one of these demonstrations and more significantly, the arrest of opposition MP and leader of the recently formed Al- Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, Ayman Nour.
And if the president was planning all along to take this step, many are asking, why did his NDP recently talk opposition parties into backtracking their years-old demands for constitutional reform? And why did Mubarak, a proponent of slow and gradual change throughout his 24 years in office reverse this policy in a way that is reminiscent of Sadat's famous "strategic deception"?
To date, there are no clear cut answers. And despite the fogginess, the highlights of Mubarak's initiative are startling: for the first time in Egypt's modern history, the army will not be the only door to presidency. For some, this might usher a new era they like to call the "second republic". Hassan Nafaa, a prominent political science professor says this could be the case, depending on what the president has in mind. But because of the way the president announced his initiative, Nafaa told Al-Ahram Weekly, there are three possibilities. The "most chancy" is if Article 76 is amended and Mubarak decides not to run, allowing for his son Gamal, to do so instead. On the other hand, Mubarak might be seriously paving the way for radical constitutional reform that will transform the state from a military to a civil political establishment after he contests and wins the coming vote. In the third scenario, the parliament and NDP will make a point of placing difficult regulations that would make it impossible for other serious contenders to win or contest the elections.
"There should have been preludes for this change," argued Nafaa, "[the president] should have come up with a comprehensive package for political and constitutional reform."
Although the parliament's Legislative Committee is yet to finalise the new draft constitution, the opposition is already voicing discontent with what appears to be tough regulations that demand support within the NDP- dominated municipal councils, the parliament and upper house, the Shura Council.
But this might not be the only problem. Law experts and opposition political leaders say the entire Constitution must be fully revised -- and not just one article -- to pave the way for meaningful political reform.
"The Egyptian Constitution was tailored to place the executive authority of the state in the hands of the president alone," Ibrahim Darwish, a veteran law professor told the Weekly. "It is solidly inter-connected in a way that makes it impossible to amend one article alone without modifying the rest if the objective is changing the constitutional structure to make it a democratic one."
Despite the scepticism, Mubarak's initiative seems to have set a new dynamic already as many Egyptians who never considered voting previously are now looking forward to doing so -- "unless everything turns out to be a big fiasco," quipped 63-year-old Amal Abdel-Ghani, a housewife and mother of three.
This dynamic might appear more visible these days as it coincides with revolutionary scenes coming from Lebanon. An LA Times editorial on Tuesday detected "winds of change in the Middle East", and on the same day, British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared that the "a ripple of change is running through the Middle East."
In Egypt many are aware of the ripple, but might disagree on what caused it. The Kifaya (Enough) anti- Mubarak demonstrations are one of the more obvious signs of discontent here, but they are not directed against the current political establishment alone. In every single demonstration since 2000, the US, Israel, the "coalition of the willing" as well as all the Arab regimes, were lambasted and condemned in the streets of Cairo.