How Democracy Could be Hijacked

“After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.”

–Nelson Mandela

January 25 was the date the Egyptian youth decided to launch their revolution.  As the fear barrier was broken, Egyptians throughout the country and from all walks of life joined the protests by the millions. Their main chant for eighteen continuous days was ‘The people want the fall of the regime.’

On February 11 that demand was met in a twenty second address by the recently appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman. Appearing on state television, he declared that Hosni Mubarak had resigned from his thirty-year position, transferring his authority to a military council called the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

His brief statement epitomized the end of an era marked by vicious repression and corruption as well as the inauguration of a new era that all Egyptians have since been celebrating in the streets.

The military signified the last institution tied to the deposed regime that still retained the trust and confidence of the people. During the protests it declared neutrality between the people and the regime. Although it demonstrated some favoritism towards the former regime at critical junctures of the uprising, to its credit, it rejected the call by the deposed president to crack down on the demonstrators.

Insisting on their peaceful protests while focusing on their main demand, the pro-democracy revolutionaries did not take the bait of the deposed president by engaging in violence in response to the crackdown by the security forces. When the army was called to the streets, the public embraced it; frequently chanting ‘The people and the army are one.’

Subsequently the groups that participated in the revolution formed loose coalitions in order to articulate their demands. The main coalition of the January 25 revolution, which included the most active groups and parties, has presented 35 demands to the new military rulers. These demands span all aspects of Egyptian life, including the political, constitutional, judicial, security, and economic levels.

Some of the most important demands encompassed the transfer of power from SCAF, which is ruling the country, to a transitional five-member civilian presidential council that would also include the head of the military; the dissolution of the lower and upper chambers of parliament; the dissolution of all provincial and local councils; the dissolution of the last government appointed by Mubarak, led by Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq; and the establishment of an elected and representative congress to write a new constitution.

Other demands include the release of all political prisoners- not only those who were arrested after Jan. 25 but also all political prisoners in Egyptian prisons, the end of the notorious state of emergency law, the dissolution of the state security apparatus that ruled the country through intimidation and fear, the dissolution of the ruling party and confiscation of its assets, investigation of all corrupt politicians and businessmen, including Mubarak and his sons, who systematically stole hundreds of billions of dollars, and putting them on trial, as well as firing all board chairmen and chief editors of the state print and electronic media who were cheering on the regime and deceiving the public through their massive propaganda operations.

In their first communiqués, the military rulers declared they would embrace, without elaboration, the demands of the revolution. But out of the three-dozen demands of the pro-democracy organizers, they have only explicitly supported three major demands in the first ten days while remaining vague on many others. Some pro-democracy leaders looked at the pace and scope of the reforms with cautious optimism, while others were alarmed and raised genuine concerns.

It was clear that behind the scenes the military forced Mubarak to resign, thus playing a crucial role in satisfying the main demand of the revolution. Subsequently, the military council embraced a much narrower agenda by favoring limited constitutional reform. It appointed some of the most respected constitutional scholars in the country to amend the constitution, addressing issues related to free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, including limiting presidential terms.

But this was the same agenda announced by Mubarak before he resigned, a much less ambitious feat than the public’s demand for a new constitution. The difference was that the military, unlike Mubarak, selected credible judges and constitutional scholars who had no ties to the deposed president or his regime.

Another crucial demand carried out by the military council was the dissolution of the parliament, which the deposed regime fraudulently elected last November. Moreover, in order to diffuse some of the public anger, the military council called on the state prosecutor to arrest three former corrupt ministers and one senior ruling party leader as they are being investigated for massive financial and political corruption.

The prosecutor also banned dozens of other former ministers and oligarchs from foreign travel, as he announced massive investigations on huge sums of ill-gotten money, bribery, extortion, and other acts of economic and official corruption. It appears that the corrosive behavior of power and money during the Mubarak regime is promising to bring down some of the most powerful and wealthy people of Mubarak’s Egypt.

Much information that has appeared in the media since the downfall of Mubarak, show huge financial irregularities and corruption by the pillars of the former regime, reaching over a trillion dollars in one conservative estimate. For instance, many senior leaders of previous Mubarak governments, as well as ruling party leaders close to his son Gamal, acquired state lands or factories at rock bottom prices. In most transactions each individual made billions of dollars. Some even made in excess of $5 billion in one land deal.

However, bringing this class of people to justice would be a huge challenge and a critical test to the ultimate success of the revolution. After all, in the minds of most people revolutions are about rendering justice and punishing usurpers of the people’s rights and wealth.

Whether the investigations would be allowed to cover all corrupt individuals including the Mubarak family remains to be seen. If such investigations are allowed to proceed, they will represent significant indicators to the real independence and transparency of the military council.

Real challenge: Revolution vs. Counter-revolution

As the French revolution was unfolding at the end of the eighteenth century, French philosopher and diplomat Joseph de Maistre wrote, “The Counter-Revolution will not be a reverse revolution, but the reverse of a Revolution.”  Likewise, the main challenge to Egypt’s revolution is that it could be hijacked by counter-revolutionaries, tied to the deposed regime, who would then reverse the revolution.

So what are the main challenges paused by counter-revolutionary forces facing the Egyptian revolution?

The dean of Arab journalists in the Middle East is Nasser-era Muhammad Hassanein Haykal. Banned from appearing on state television since the days of former President Anwar Sadat, he has recently sounded the alarm. He claimed in his first Egyptian television interview since the early 1970s that Mubarak, who is residing in his mansion at the Red Sea resort city of Sharm Al-Sheikh, has maintained contacts with the current Prime Minister that he appointed in early February. The implication is that he might be ruling by proxy.

If true, this would imply a huge betrayal of the people’s trust. Sharm Al-Sheikh gives Mubarak a huge advantage over his opponents. It is an isolated tourist destination by the Red Sea in the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, where few Egyptians live, mainly servicing American, European and Israeli visitors.

Moreover, because of the restrictions placed on the Egyptians by the peace treaty with Israel, the army could not send more than 800 personnel into the entire peninsula. Most likely, there are more armed guards protecting Mubarak and his family at Sharm than that paltry number.

But the only way to limit any influence by Mubarak or his cronies on the future of the country is to purge his people from all positions of power or influence. This was the main theme of the more than three million demonstrators in Tahrir Square who came together one week after Mubarak’s ouster on Friday, February 18, celebrating ‘Victory Day.’

On that day the main chants of the demonstrators were, ‘The people demand to purify the regime,’ and ‘The people demand the values of the (Tahrir) Square,’ in a clear reference to revolutionary demands and ethics.

To purify the regime, the revolutionaries are demanding that the military council purge many institutions and dismiss many senior people tied to the previous regime. Otherwise, there will be a serious danger that the revolution could be hijacked –applying the same policies and corrupt practices albeit using different characters.

One of the foremost challenges, which the military council has been trying to avoid despite popular calls, is the dismissal of the central government and all the provincial governors, those officials appointed by Mubarak who showed intense loyalty to him through his final days.

Further, not only was the current government appointed by Mubarak a few days before he resigned, but many of its members, including the oil, information, labor, and health ministers were also known to be some of the most corrupt in the deposed regime.

Therefore the pro-democracy coalition is calling on the military council to declare a complete break from the previous regime and appoint an honest and capable individual to lead a transitional government until the elections, one that comprises a cabinet of technocrats, who were never part of any past Mubarak government.

But the military council has been wavering on this demand, preferring to bring about a limited reshuffle by replacing the most corrupt ministers, perhaps with some opposition members who were friendly with the previous regime. This is going to be a major test to the military council, signaling to the public their seriousness regarding the future direction of the country. Meanwhile, this challenge has been faced by the pro-democracy leaders of the coalition, formed to protect the revolution, by vowing to bring millions of people every Friday to Tahrir Square until this demand is met.

Perhaps the major challenges illustrating whether the military is serious about breaking from the past and embracing the goals of the revolution are in three crucial areas. The first challenge is at the security level. The main reason the deposed regime was able to control and dominate the political scene, and rule by instilling fear and repression is because of the state security apparatus, called the Mabahith. Until this apparatus is totally dismantled, there is a considerable threat that the revolution could be reversed, or at least hindered to the point of derailing its main objectives.

Secondly, major figures in the former ruling party, including major corrupt businessmen, are trying to regroup and re-brand themselves as a new pro-revolution and reform party, in an attempt to take over the levers of state power by manipulating the public, using the huge resources at their disposal, and through their internal knowledge of how state institutions operate. For example, the current government, in a plain effort to appease state employees, has offered each worker a fifteen per cent raise in order to carry favor and gain their support in any future elections.

Thirdly, none of the pro-regime media officials appointed by Mubarak to the numerous state print and electronic media boards or outlets, or heads of labor unions, have been dismissed. If allowed to stay in power, they would pose a very dangerous threat to genuine change since, as part of the previous regime, they have every incentive to promote their people to cover up all their corrupt behavior and practices, even as they falsely present themselves in the interim as reformers.

Another important test to SCAF’s seriousness with regard to the people’s demands is the lifting of the state of emergency law and allowing the unhindered formation of political parties. There are many manifestations of this law that stifle personal, civil, and political freedoms. For instance, under this law people could administratively be detained by the government without any charges for extended periods of time, or their houses searched without any judicial warrants.

Further, all universities are still controlled by the police, so that students could not organize their activities without the prying eyes of the state. The military council has already promised to lift the emergency law within six months. Fulfilling this promise is considered one of the most important signs to the realization of civilian and democratic rule.

An immediate impact of the revolution on the political system was this week’s judicial ruling on the formation of one of the political parties, the Wasat (or Middle), that has been fighting to come to existence since 1996. This time the Administrative Judicial System asserted its independence, voided the past ban, and ruled for it to legally operate. The previous regime fought against it for fifteen years because it was formed by former members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, the military council has promised to enact laws soon that would make formation of political parties easy and routine.

The role judges are likely to play in the future of  Egyptian society will also be a clear indication of the direction of the country. If Egypt establishes a strong and independent judiciary, one whose decisions are respected and observed in society and not undermined by the executive branch, Egypt will then become the modern democratic state the revolution has called for.

This test will come to pass soon, as the next elections are scheduled this year under the supervision of the judiciary. If it is able to assert its authority and administer the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections freely and fairly by truly reflecting the will of the people, then Egypt will have accomplished a major milestone along its path on becoming a democratic state.

In short, like all such moments in history, Egypt’s revolution faces great challenges. But perhaps the most important is whether the new Egypt will break from the grip of some elements of Mubarak’s regime trying desperately to cling to power and prevent real change. The military will certainly have a say on whether to go forward and propel true reforms, as demanded by the revolution, or slow down and besiege it to accommodate the interests of its opponents.

In addition, a central challenge to the revolution will be the external pressures applied by international and regional powers to safeguard their interests and policies, which may diverge from or have a direct conflict with the interests and wishes of the vast majority of the people of Egypt. For instance, Egyptians overwhelmingly want to lift the siege on Gaza that the deposed regime helped maintain. They also want to help the various Palestinian factions reach a re-conciliation and end their division. Both objectives are strongly opposed by the U.S. and Israel.

Hence, the assertion of Egypt’s independence in the face of certain immense Western pressures would represent the ultimate test to the success of this revolution. If the future government of Egypt truly reflects the will of its people in internal as well as external policies, then the revolution has indeed succeeded. If not, then somewhere along the way counter revolutionary elements would have hijacked it, setting the stage for another corrective revolution.

Only the vigilance of the revolutionary forces in society and insistence on achieving their main objectives will determine the destiny of Egypt’s revolution. As it started in Tahrir Square on January 25, Egypt’s revolution might be destined to stay in Tahrir Square for some time until every challenge has met its response and every objective has become a reality.

In his farewell address in 1837, President Andrew Jackson said it best when he reminded his people that “eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty,” and that one “must pay the price” in order “to secure the blessing.”

Here are the most recent pieces by ESAM AL-AMIN on the Egyptian Revolution.

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at


Esam Al-Amin is the author of The Arab Awakening Unveiled: Understanding Transformations and Revolutions in the Middle East. He can be contacted at