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Egypt's Post-Mubarak Political Uncertainty

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 18, 2011

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The trial of former President Hosni Mubarak (NYT) and his two sons, adjourned until September 5, has raised considerable controversy in Egypt, says CFR Egypt expert Steven A. Cook. While there is political pressure to find Mubarak and his sons guilty, Cook says, many Egyptians "are concerned about this issue of retribution and revolutionary justice and the need to demonstrate that the rule of law is supreme here." It would have been ideal, he says, if there had been a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as South Africa had after the end of apartheid, but there is no Nelson Mandela-like figure in Egypt to lead such an effort. Some of these themes will play out in parliamentary elections slated for November, as well as the presidential elections in 2012, says Cook, who points out that there is almost a surfeit of choice, with 150 political groups vying for seats. Cook says the Muslim Brotherhood has the advantage of being well organized, but even that party faces dissension within.

The adjournment of the Mubarak trial and the announcement that the trial will not be televised caused a stir in Egypt. Can you summarize what this trial is really about?

Mubarak and his sons are all charged with corruption. Mubarak and his minister of interior, Habib al-Adly, are also charged with murder for the deaths of nine hundred Egyptians during the three-week uprising in late January and early February. The revolutionary groups, the families of the revolutionary martyrs, and many Egyptians have demanded that Mubarak be held accountable for his crimes and misdeeds during the thirty years that he ruled Egypt. This is something that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has allowed to happen, but only reluctantly. There had been an implicit deal that Mubarak would go to Sharm el-Sheikh--he's quite sick--and spend the rest of his days, and that would be that. But revolutionary groups and others have been successful in applying enough pressure on the Supreme Council to let a judicial process move forward.

There is a tremendous desire in Egypt for accountability and justice, but there is also this slippery slope to revolutionary justice, or retribution. And, there is political pressure that Mubarak must be found guilty. But if Egypt is going to build a more decent political system where the rule of law and due process reign supreme for everyone, the Mubarak trial is a very good place to start. And there are many Egyptians who are concerned about this issue of retribution and revolutionary justice and the need to demonstrate that the rule of law is supreme. I don't think anybody really doubts the former president's guilt on a number of issues. The question is whether the court can function properly.

There is a tremendous desire in Egypt for accountability and justice, but there is also this slippery slope to revolutionary justice, or retribution.

How independent is the Egyptian judiciary?

The Egyptian judiciary has a long history of fighting for its independence. It has been under assault since the [Gamal Abdel] Nasser era starting in 1956. In fact, the Egyptian leadership created a parallel court system called the State Security Court and the Supreme State Security Court in order to get around the Egyptian judiciary. We'll have to watch whether the justices presiding in the Mubarak trial can live up to those traditions of independence, or whether the political pressure for retribution is going to be too much.

A Truth and Reconciliation commission like the one formed in South Africa was the best option, but you can't really point to any one particular individual who has the kind of moral credibility that Nelson Mandela had in South Africa when they established the commission.

Bring us up to date on the parliamentary election.

It was originally slated for September, but under pressure from revolutionary groups and others, the Supreme Council decided to delay those elections by two months, to give new political groups an opportunity to organize. Had the elections been held in September--or, the original idea was for them to be held in June--it would have given an advantage to groups that were previously well organized and well resourced. Whether that that was the Muslim Brotherhood or remnants of the National Democracy Party or not, the concern was that you really needed to give new political groups time. At last count, there really has been a flowering of politics, energy, and creativity in Egypt. But there is a concern that there may be too much choice. There are close to 150 new political groups in Egypt trying to vie for seats in the forthcoming parliament. Many of the newer political groups--who are different from the revolutionary groups--are having a hard time getting political traction in organizing and building grassroots movements.

At last count, there really has been a flowering of politics, energy, and creativity in Egypt. But there is a concern that there may be too much choice. There are close to 150 new political groups in Egypt trying to vie for seats in the forthcoming parliament.

Do the young people who instigated the overthrow of Mubarak have a party?

Many of them actually don't even believe in the whole notion of party politics. They see themselves as resistant to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which runs the country now. They see themselves as revolutionaries, not as necessarily political leaders. These revolutionary groups are different from political parties that have emerged after the uprising and different from political parties that existed prior to the revolution. These groups are focused on the Mubarak trial, the arrest of activists, the current military tribunals. Those are the issues animating them. That's not to say that some of them aren't also deeply involved in party politics. But overall, the people who instigated the uprising continue to focus on resistance to what they perceive to be--and I think they're quite correct --the remnants of the old regime that are trying to salvage what they can and continue to try to thwart the fundamental changes brought about by the uprising.

Does it look like the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party are the leading political forces in the coming parliamentary elections?

Certainly, the Muslim Brotherhood is a party to watch going forward. The best estimate of how they may do in free and fair elections is anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of seats. They're not contesting all of the seats in the election, but that they will control from anywhere from one-fifth to one-quarter of the people's assembly. And then it will be filled in by the rest. Certainly, there will be remnants of the National Democratic Party represented as either independent candidates or some new types of groupings. And then you have some of the traditional parties: the Wafd Party, the Tagammu Party, newer parties like the Democratic Front. And you have the emergence of new social democratic parties and leftist parties that will all be contesting. You can expect parties that are well organized and well resourced before the uprising to do well, and one of those is certainly the Muslim Brotherhood. But that's not to suggest that the Brotherhood hasn't had its own problems.

The NDP, Mubarak's party, was never very strong in the urban areas like Cairo and Alexandria. It was strong in the rural areas, because the party wasn't much of party; it was much more of a patronage network. So party activists are scouring rural areas talking to village leaders and notables and trying to enlist their support. The problem is that it takes time and a lot of money to get people out there to do this. Naguib Sawiris (TIME), Egypt's most prestigious businessman, has established a political party. His actors are [also] out in the countryside trying to enlist support. What Egyptians are going to be confronting is perhaps too much choice, a fragmentation of the political spectrum, at least on the kind of secular, left, new social democratic and social justice parties.

When Mubarak was forced out, there was talk of presidential candidates Mohammed ElBaradei (JPost) and Amr Moussa (WashPost). What's happened to them?

They have presidential campaigns. Amr Moussa has been out there basically riding the news cycles. When there are protests in Tahrir, he picks up the cause of that. There was a buzz about ElBaradei in late June because he won a poll on the Supreme Council of the Armed Force Facebook page. So, there was some buzz that he was quite popular, that the Supreme Council was seeking to bolster him. But some people call him "the president of Facebook."

The presidential elections have been delayed to 2012, and it's a very dynamic situation. There are more presidential candidates than Amr Moussa and ElBaradai. There is an Islamist named Salim Al-Awa, there is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh [from the Muslim Brotherhood], there are other former officials who are relatively clean in comparison to some others, who have talked about running for president. Amr Moussa is someone who initially [was seen by] the United States, the Egyptian Armed Forces, and the Israelis as a positive outcome. Even though he had distanced himself from Mubarak over the course of the last decade and he had grown popular for his nationalist stance on a variety of issues, he still was part of the Egyptian establishment. He was at one point part of the National Democratic Party. But a lot has changed, even from February. Many activists are weary of someone like Amr Moussa. ElBaradei is part of a liberal elite, [and someone]who people like, but can he develop a broader constituency that's necessary to become the next president? We'll have to see.

Are the military ready to give up power to a new civilian government?

All the signs suggest the military would very much like to hand power to civilians as soon as they can. There is a narrative within the Egyptian armed forces--it's a powerful one--that when the armed forces were directly involved in the day-to-day governance of Egypt, it had a negative effect upon the military's ability to fight wars and its cohesion as a fighting force. And that was why the Egyptians were so battered during the 1967 [Six-Day] War, in essentially three days. And then they got out of politics, regrouped, trained, focused on professionalism, and in the 1973 war, they achieved Egypt's greatest military achievement, the crossing of the Suez Canal in the opening phase of the war against Israel. That is a powerful narrative. While they were in politics, they were beaten badly on the battlefield. When they got out of politics, they proved themselves to be an effective fighting force.

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