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Egypt Transition on Brink of Collapse

by Sharif Abdel Kouddous

As Egypt enters the final days of its so-called “transition,” the entire political process is on the verge of collapse.

A man walks near Arabic words made from sand and bottle caps after Friday prayers in Tahrir Square (photo: Reuters - Amr Abdallah Dalsh) The essential foundations of a post-Mubarak government that were supposed to have been lain over the past 16 months - the legislature, the presidency, the constitution - each suffer a crisis of legitimacy, the result of a military-managed transitional process so deformed that it barely make sense anymore.

Meanwhile, the lack of any semblance of reform within key state institutions - most notably the security forces, the judiciary and the media - was reconfirmed in the most dramatic of ways this month with the verdict in the trial of Hosni Mubarak, his sons and other top regime officials.

The president is being elected without a clear idea of what authority he will have vis-à-vis the military, the parliament and the other branches of state.

The turmoil has triggered massive protests across the country barely three weeks from the scheduled handover of power from military to civilian rule, with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians taking to the streets in a bid to reclaim their revolution.

The escalation of political crises began last month in the wake of the highly anticipated presidential elections. The first round of the poll left the country with a bitter, divisive outcome, pitting Ahmed Shafik, a stalwart of the Mubarak regime against Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The result has left the majority of voters facing the most difficult of dilemmas, forced to choose between one candidate who is the very embodiment of the former regime that they rose up against last year; and the other a member of a conservative Islamist group that is, in many ways, the mirror establishment - highly hierarchical and disciplined, supported by patronage networks - and is widely viewed as having abandoned the revolution early on in the pursuit of its own interests.

The president is being elected without a clear idea of what authority he will have vis-à-vis the military, the parliament and the other branches of state. Moreover, the legitimacy of the poll itself has been called into question with serious allegations of fraud made by the candidates who ranked third and fourth.

The rulings by the Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) that rejected the allegations cannot be appealed and the body lacks popular credibility - being led by a Mubarak-appointed judge and having behaved suspiciously by distributing last minute supplementary voter lists and blocking monitors’ access to counting rooms.

The shocking Mubarak verdict in what had been dubbed "the trial of the century" transformed the post-election depression that had gripped much of the country into a reinvigorated revolutionary fervor.

Meanwhile, there are growing calls for a boycott of the vote. Pointing to real questions over the validity of the entire process as conducted under military rule and the widespread disenchantment over the lesser-of-two-evils choice between Shafik and Mursi, some segments of the revolutionary youth are actively calling for voters to boycott the runoff in order to depress the low first round turnout of 46 percent to such a degree so as to throw into question the popular legitimacy of the elected president.

Over and above allegations regarding the process of the presidential elections is the very candidacy of Shafik himself. The PEC chose not to implement the Political Isolation Law issued by the democratically-elected parliament and signed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) in April that bans former senior officials of the Mubarak regime from running for office for ten years. Instead, the PEC referred the case to the Supreme Constitutional Court which is due to issue a ruling sometime this month, leaving the entire presidential race hanging in the balance.

Less than a week after the official first round results were declared, the shocking Mubarak verdict in what had been dubbed "the trial of the century" transformed the post-election depression that had gripped much of the country into a reinvigorated revolutionary fervor.

Despite a poorly conducted investigation by the Mubarak-appointed public prosecutor, many had expected some kind of justice and accountability for the killing of hundreds of protesters in the opening days of the revolution last year. The prosecution's case involved 11 governorates, 1,600 witnesses, stacks of Interior Ministry files and rolls of footage showing demonstrators being attacked by security forces. In the end, no one was found guilty for killing protesters. To add insult to injury, the court even said it didn't know how the hundreds of protesters died - that in one of the most widely-recorded events in history it couldn't prove that the police killed anyone, letting the Ministry of Interior completely off the hook.

Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly were sentenced to life in prison for failing to intervene to stop the killing in what was widely viewed as a political decision that will certainly be appealed. Six of Adly's top aides were acquitted, including Ahmed Ramzi, the head of the Central Security Forces and Hassan Abdel Rahman the head of the notorious State Security Investigations unit. Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted on corruption charges because of a statute of limitations issue.

The verdict sparked outrage across the country and a mass gathering in Tahrir that drew comparisons to the 18-day uprising that ousted Mubarak in 2011, a sentiment reflected by one front-page newspaper headline the next day that read: "The 19th Day of the Revolution."

The protests have continued for days and have gone beyond a direct reaction to the Mubarak verdict to a deeper call for the revolution to take over the transition. Alongside the demands for Mubarak and regime figures to be retried in revolutionary tribunals, are calls for a civilian presidential council that would include former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Abul-Fotouh alongside the Brotherhood to manage the political process. Similar demands were made following the ouster of Mubarak in February 2011 as well as in the wake of the clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud street in November but were similarly ignored by SCAF.

The protests have continued for days and have gone beyond a direct reaction to the Mubarak verdict to a deeper call for the revolution to take over the transition.

The Brotherhood quickly joined the reinvigorated protests, looking to capitalize on the outpouring of anger against the former regime and hoping to win the votes of revolutionaries against Shafik in the runoff. They rejected calls to cancel the presidential race and join a civilian presidential council and have refused to make any concrete offers of vice presidency and prime minister posts to outside forces in return for endorsements.

Over and above the presidential race is the critical issue of the constitution. The ruling army generals have made it clear throughout the transitional period that they are looking to protect the military's political and economic interests before a handover of power to a civilian president by enshrining its privileges in the constitution and possibly maintaining the existence of the SCAF as a fourth branch of government.

This week, the military council set a 48-hour deadline for political parties to finalize the criteria for the formation of a Constituent Assembly. If an agreement is not reached, the SCAF will issue a complementary constitutional declaration to lay the blueprints for the panel and effectively control the whole drafting process.

The ultimatum is a direct challenge to the Muslim Brotherhood, which won nearly half the seats in parliament last fall. The body has had little power, unable to form a government and unable to issue legislation without SCAF approval. The formation of the Constituent Assembly was parliament's only real mandate and the one card held by the Brotherhood against SCAF. The group has wholly rejected SCAF's attempt to control the constitution writing process as a "hijacking of legislative authority."

Another sword of Damocles hanging over the Brotherhood's head is a case before the Supreme Constitutional Court over the constitutionality of the parliamentary elections that could dissolve parliament altogether.

Every aspect of Egypt's transition has been badly mangled over the past 16 months and its legitimacy has been seriously called into question. Calls are growing for the entire process to be dumped in favor of a fresh start without the army at the helm. What is more likely to happen is that political elites will not come together to take on the military council, but instead pursue their own interests; band-aids will be used in a bid to save a decapitated political process and the country will stagger clumsily into another phase of uncertainty. For its part, the revolution will continue its struggle confined to where it first began: on the streets.

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