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Experts Weigh In On New Egypt

Political scientists and law professor talk about what’s next in Egypt

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February 22, 2011 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel
EVANSTON, Ill. --- See Northwestern University experts’ commentary below about the future of Egypt and the important next step -- the transition from military to civilian rule.

Among the topics the scholars touch upon are the trickiness of transitioning from authoritarian rule to a new democratic system; the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the new Egypt; and the importance of bringing the type of egalitarianism represented in the protests into the parliamentary elections.

Kristen Stilt is an associate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law with a joint appointment in the department of history. She received her Ph.D. in Islamic history from Harvard University and is the author of “Islamic Law in Action,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Kristen Stilt’s commentary

The important next step is the transition from military to civilian rule, Stilt said.  She is particularly interested in the formation of new political parties and hopes that new parties and independent candidates alike will have a place at the table in parliamentary elections.

“Egalitarian issues will be crucial for a new Egypt,” Stilt said. “The public participation in the Egyptian protests that ousted Mubarak were characterized by egalitarianism and inclusiveness—men and women, young and old, Christian and Muslim -- and hopefully this spirit can be maintained going forward.” 

The Muslim Brotherhood itself just announced that it will stay intact as the organization it has been, but it also will spin off, as opposed to morphing into, a political party.

“We can expect that this new Brotherhood-created Freedom and Justice Party will be committed to the main principles that the Brotherhood has been articulating in recent years: justice, democracy and the rule of law,” Stilt said.

At the same time, she said, the new Party’s formation will require the Brotherhood to sort out internal disputes that came to the surface in 2007 when it issued a draft political party platform.  “Then, some members, mainly the older guard, rejected the idea that a woman or Christian could hold the Egyptian presidency,” Stilt said. “The new Justice and Freedom Party seems to have moved away from this conservative position, while also suggesting that it would not be appropriate for a woman or Christian to head the new party.”   

This ongoing debate shows that there is no single Muslim Brotherhood view on any particular issue. “We can expect to see differences among the members to become a matter of public debate in the coming weeks,” Stilt said  “In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood may end up spinning off several political parties, each reflecting differing views within the Brotherhood.” 

Stilt also raised concerns about the 10-member constitutional drafting committee not having any women.  “Now you may say, so what?  They are talking about political power and political parties and the structure of elections; that is not a gender issue. I contend, however, that it is symbolically quite significant that no women were appointed on that committee.”

Wendy Pearlman, assistant professor of political science, is the Crown Junior Professor in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. Her book, “Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement” is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.

Pearlman notes that the challenges that await the new Egypt are many.

“An authoritarian system that was built over decades cannot be undone overnight,” Pearlman said. “The Egyptian press is already abuzz with different opinions on what is to be done. There appears to be a consensus that laws and constitutional amendments -- and some say the entire constitution -- need to be rewritten.”

A safe and free legal environment needs to give time and space to new and old political parties and movements to organize, according to Pearlman. “The nepotism and corruption that have long been endemic in the public and private sector need to be rooted out. Egyptians are eager for a system in which personal connections don’t make or break ordinary folks’ life chances.”

Bumps in the road are inevitable as Egypt continues with its transition. “The process of transitioning from the breakdown of authoritarian rule to the consolidation of a new democratic system is tricky, because it is difficult to satisfy all parties and interests involved,” Pearlman said. “Some people will be wary of giving up the economic or political power they gained thanks to the old regime. Others, hungry for immediate, tangible transformation, may become impatient with the slow pace of change.”

The popular way that this transition came into power, however, is cause for optimism, according to Pearlman. “In the 1950s and ‘60s, military coup d’états brought about regime change in various countries in the Middle East, including Egypt,” she said. “Those coups established the very repressive single-party states that are coming under pressure today.”

While the army is in charge now, it wasn’t a simple military maneuver that got them there. “It was not the army but the far-reaching and sustained show of people’s power that forced out Mubarak,” Pearlman said. “Egyptians from all walks of life reclaimed their voice and discovered their collective power. From here forward, they will not go back to accepting anything less than democracy.”

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, specializes in relations among Europe, the United States and the Middle East. She is the author of a book titled “The Politics of Secularism in International Relations.” See Hurd’s Feb. 8 article “Myths of Mubarak” in the Huffington Post.

Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s commentary

“The most pressing question today is the extent to which the Egyptian military will turn over power to civilian authorities -- and how quickly,” Hurd said. “ When civil society and parties representing the diverse views of the people behind the protest movement are empowered, life will improve for the people of Egypt.”

“One person to watch in Egypt today is the recently appointed chair of the Committee of Judges and Scholars appointed to revise the Egyptian constitution, Tariq al-Bishri,” Hurd said. “A leading public intellectual, Bishri is known for his support for a working separation of powers, rather than lodging authority either in the presidency or the parliament. This separation would be the prelude to an independent judiciary whose role would be to balance these two contenders."

“The United States needs to press hard for the formation of a wide array of opposition parties in Egypt that support democracy, whether they self-identify as ‘secular’ or not,” Hurd said. “The Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian opposition group banned since 1954, plans to establish itself as a political party under the name Freedom and Justice. The Wasat (Center) Party, banned in Egypt for the last 15 years, has already been declared established and legitimate by the authorities.”