Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Keep pushing in Egypt

The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 8:34 PM

PRESIDENT OBAMA said Tuesday that Egypt's military rulers were sending "the right signals" since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak last week. Mr. Obama cited announcements by the Supreme Military Council reaffirming the peace treaty with Israel and promising a swift transition to civilian rule, and its meetings with opposition leaders. Those were positive steps. But the military's early actions are also giving grounds for concern that it may not accept key demands of both the Egyptian opposition and the United States - measures that are critical to establishing a genuine democracy.

The first troubling sign is the military's failure, so far, to give opposition leaders a formal place in managing either the political transition or the interim government. While two generals met on Sunday with a group of representatives of the youth movements that organized the protests, neither those representatives nor other opposition leaders have been included in the regime's decision-making. Nor have the generals been willing to meet with several key opposition leaders, such as former U.N. official Mohamed ElBaradei. The cabinet appointed by Mr. Mubarak last month has been reconfirmed.

Rather than create joint structures to decide on such matters as how to amend the constitution, when to hold elections and what other reforms to undertake, the military has been rushing ahead with its own plan - which looks a lot like that promoted by Mr. Mubarak and his vice president, Omar Suleiman. On Tuesday the generals appointed an eight-member committee and ordered it to amend, within 10 days, the same constitutional articles that Mr. Mubarak promised to rewrite last week.

The panel is headed by a respected retired judge regarded as a moderate Islamist, and it includes a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it's not clear that a quick rephrasing of a bad charter can open the political system enough for a genuinely free presidential election. It's also questionable whether the council's announced intention to hold an election in six months will allow adequate time for political parties, other than the ruling party and that of the Muslim Brotherhood, to organize and compete across a country of 70 million people.

Opposition leaders themselves differ on how quickly elections can be held and whether the constitution should be amended or scrapped. That's all the more reason why these questions should be hammered out around a round table, rather than abruptly decided by martial decree. The military's intentions look even more questionable because of its continuing refusal to lift an emergency law that restricts public gatherings and allows detention without charge, and its failure to release thousands of political prisoners.

Mr. Obama claimed that "in a complicated situation, we got it about right" in Egypt. Not many of the Egyptian protest leaders agree with him, but U.S. pressure on the military not to violently suppress the protests probably was important. What's vital now is that, in addition to praising the generals, the administration also keep pushing them to fully open the political system to the pro-democracy leaders, and immediately lift authoritarian constraints like the emergency law. As Mr. Obama himself put it: "Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done in Egypt itself."


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