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Transition in Egypt Presents Challenges

  • Mohamed Elshinnawi

While the U.S. government is pushing for an orderly transition of power in Cairo, some Egyptian and U.S. experts worry that the government is maneuvering to stay in power by making cosmetic changes in the leadership.

Protesters in Egypt are refusing to halt their demonstrations until President Hosni Mubarak leaves office, even though Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman is leading talks with opposition groups and representatives of the protesters over how to carry out a change of leadership. The Obama administration is pushing for a leadership change as soon as possible, but acknowledges there are enormous challenges ahead.

One major challenge is an article in the Egyptian constitution calling on the speaker of parliament to lead any transitional government if the president steps down. That could create problems because many Egyptians consider the last parliamentary elections to have been fraudulent.

Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin explains, saying, "The wrong person would end up as president; the speaker of the parliament who has been a henchman of Mubarak, who is not the kind of figure you would want to be in charge during this difficult period. ButI think the key thing is that the process that has begun of meetings, of reforms, change has to get concrete as soon as possible."

Rubin suggests a suspension of the constitution as one way to overcome the problem and open the way for an agreement on who best could lead the transition.

Amr Hamzawy is a member of a so-called "Wise Men’s Committee," formed to mediate between the Egyptian protesters and the vice president. After meeting Vice President Suleiman and monitoring his meetings with opposition leaders, Hamzawy says there is a degree of national consensus over what needs to happen next to move Egypt toward a change of government.

But he adds that he and other Egyptians feel the challenge now is dealing with an entrenched government that is trying to slow down the process in an apparent attempt to stay in power.

"The vice president should oversee the transition period. The parliament needs to be dissolved, We have a set of constitutional amendments, which everyone agrees on; we have a set of legal changes pertained to laws, and regulations governing political participation, political rights, civil liberties, electoral system, ending the emergency laws. We do know what it takes to put Egypt on a democratization path. What is lacking is a clear political will from the ruling establishment to democratize and stop consolidating, which they are trying now," he said.

Some democracy experts like Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International peace believe the major challenge now is whether there is going to be a real governing transition in Cairo given that the Egyptian army is reluctant to pressure President Mubarak to step down. To keep the process on track, she says, specific measures need to take place immediately.

"I think, it is necessary at a minimum for President Mubarak to step into a ceremonial role and out of an actual governing role. I think that the opposition needs to reach pretty extensive agreements with Vice President Suleiman or whoever from the Egyptian government is going to be there during the transition, about exactly how it is going to happen. That would probably be six or nine months down the road from now," he said.

Dunne says she fears the government in Egypt is trying to stay in office, with a few cosmetic changes, by pitting the non-protesting public who yearn for a sense of normality against protesters who want to keep demonstrating until President Mubarak steps down.

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