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The Future Of Democracy In Egypt


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. For much of this hour, we're going to talk about Afghanistan with NPR's Tom Bowman, who recently returned from Ghazni Province. If you served there, call and tell us what you saw that might predict the future: 800-989-8255. Email us:

But first, developing news from Egypt, where just days before the presidential runoff election, the country's highest court today declared the recent parliamentary elections unconstitutional and ordered the Islamist-led parliament dissolved. A separate ruling allows former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to remain in the presidential runoff race.


In anticipation of those decisions, last night, the military re-imposed what amounts to martial law. One Egyptian human rights activist tweeted: Egypt just witnessed the smoothest military coup. Samer Shehata is professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University, and joins us now from a studio there. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

SAMER SHEHATA: Nice to speak with you.

CONAN: And does this amount to a coup?

SHEHATA: Not exactly a coup - certainly, I would think a setback for those who want to see a post-Mubarak Egypt solidified, but not exactly a coup. I think many of us thought that one of the rulings, at least, by the Supreme Constitutional Court would take place, and that is the unconstitutionality of the political exclusion law, which would then allow Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, to run.

But certainly, I think at least that ruling can't be looked on favorably by anybody who wants to see a post-Mubarak Egypt.


CONAN: The other ruling, dissolving parliament, as I understand it, the logic of it was that a third of the parliament was supposed to be elected as independent candidates. Two-thirds were elected on party slate. In the election that occurred, some who were running on party slates also ran as independents. The Supreme Constitutional Court said no, no, no. That's unconstitutional. We have to have a do-over.

SHEHATA: Well, that's correct, but to be technically accurate, they were allowed to run also for the independent seats in an arrangement that was made between the political parties and the military council that is running the country and is charged as the executive.

I think, you know, to try to get some distance and understand what is going on in Egypt right now - and these rulings and the elections that are going to take place and the absence of a constitution, and the list goes on - is that this is a very, very convoluted, complicated process. It is a mess, in fact.

I mean, if we just step back for a moment and think that we supposedly had a revolution in Egypt, and we have a democratically elected legislature. By all accounts, despite the irregularities, those elections were democratic. So we have one institution of government that is reflective of popular will that passed a law that excluded former members of the despised, despotic regime, which was the - which the revolution attempted to do away with. Now that law is being called unconstitutional by a Mubarak court, essentially, in one sense. It's absurd.

And so this gets at the depth of the mess in Egypt. Beneath every problem, there seems to be another problem of greater scope and size. And it's quite discouraging, I think, for those of us who want to see some progress towards democratic consolidation.

CONAN: So the newly elected president, who will be decided this weekend, will be sworn in not before parliament, which will be dissolved, but before the military council.

SHEHATA: That's exactly correct. And, you know, the irony kind of goes on. There's nothing in the constitution - in this previous constitution, which was overridden - that speaks of a military council. So, yes, hopefully the election will take place - I think it will, on the 16th and 17th - and a president will be sworn in, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will go away, disappear, hopefully, on July 1.

CONAN: Yet it's also conceivable this newly elected president, in the absence of parliament, would name the committee to rewrite the constitution himself, no?

SHEHATA: We haven't gotten that far yet, and, in fact, it seems like - that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military men running the show, are actually themselves, in the next few days, going to appoint a 100-person committee, which they believe will reflect the diversity and heterogeneity of Egypt. Because that was, of course, one of the problems with the two previous committees that the parliament chose.

The parliament is dominated by Islamists. Secular, liberal and other forces accused them of stacking the committee in their favor and - to the detriment of liberals - Coptic Christians, women and so on. So I think the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is likely to appoint a 100-person committee, which then again, of course, that also lacks some legitimacy - I think rightfully so - in the eyes of many.

CONAN: Here's a quote from an Egyptian human rights lawyer, Hossam Bahgat, quoted by the Associated Press: "The military placed all powers in its hands. The entire process has been undermined beyond repair. They now have the legislative and executive powers in their hands. There's a big likelihood the military-backed candidate, Shafiq, is going to win. It is a soft military coup that unfortunately many people will support out of fear of an Islamic takeover of the state."

SHEHATA: Well, that's largely correct. I think I agree with everything in the quotation, except the certainly that Ahmed Shafiq, Mr. Mubarak's last prime minister, will win. I think if we look at the numbers and what happened with regard to the first round of the elections, Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, should win, unless there is any kind of electoral fraud or irregularity.

But with regard to the military essentially controlling the country and the process of what has happened, that is completely correct. I think if anyone thought that a revolution occurred in Egypt in 2011, now they have to wake up and understand that it was not a revolution. Millions of people went out and protested against the old regime, and at the 11th hour, the military stepped in to throw Mubarak under the bus, to save themselves and to essentially save the Mubarak regime.

And that's what's happened, unfortunately, since then. And that explains why there has been little progress towards democratic consolidation, security sector reform, anything - civil liberties, human rights, political freedoms, all of those things that we hoped for would be achieved at this point.

CONAN: As you pointed out, the Supreme Constitutional Court is a holdover from the Mubarak regime. Will they be grandfathered in in the new constitution? Will they continue to be the highest court in the land?

SHEHATA: Well, to be fair, and hopefully not pedantic, under the previous regime, they were thought to have a significant degree of independence, and, in fact, overruled Mr. Mubarak's laws on a number of occasions. Nevertheless, however, again if you think a revolution is significant political change with regard to institutions in government and so on, then there has to be some thinking about what the composition of the Supreme Constitutional Court is going to be, whether the head of it is going to be, you know, a leftover from the Mubarak regime, which is the case, and so on.

So yes, there has to be change in all institutions of government, including the judiciary.

CONAN: And the military, one would think a constitution would put - as we think of it - civilian authorities in charge of the military. Is that likely to happen now?

SHEHATA: You would think so. You would hope so. You can't have a democracy without civilian control of the military. But unfortunately, this leftover, holdover from the Mubarak regime is incredibly powerful, and I think we're likely to see some authority, some provisions accorded to them. I don't think we're going to see a civilian as the minister of defense in the next few years.

CONAN: As you look ahead to the situation just over the next few days, clearly there are already reports of crowds gathering in Tahrir Square, as you might expect. Last night, the military supreme council gave troops the authority to arrest civilians for a range of pretty vague crimes, ranging from jaywalking, I think, to obstructing traffic, and basically, they gave themselves the right to crack down if they wish to.

SHEHATA: Well, that's correct. And this is again, you know, undemocratic and trounces upon any conception of civil liberties and rule of law, I think. And that's why not only the human rights groups in Egypt, but many others are outraged that this was passed by the minister of justice.

Of course in - hopefully, and this might be naive, that this will not be used to manipulate the election in one way or another, and hopefully on the 16th and 17th, democratic - as much as they can be - elections will take place. And someone will be elected, and hopefully that will not be a leftover from the Mubarak regime.

CONAN: The scene as described by reporters in Cairo today, who sounded awfully ominous, with military vehicles cruising the streets and, over loudspeakers, playing patriotic songs. Boy, when you hear patriotic music being broadcast, that smells coup to me.

SHEHATA: Yes. Well, you know, there weren't any people taken hostage or held up in the presidential palace - since they don't have a president - and so on. So, you know, I can understand where people are coming from with regard to the soft coup. But, of course, there are some - and again, I don't think complete or enough - but there are some legal bases for the rulings of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Again, I think this is a mess, incredibly convoluted and complicated. The supreme council has mismanaged and been malicious in its management of affairs since Mubarak's ouster on February 11th, and Egypt hasn't witnessed a real revolution that means fundamental change in the political institutions, let alone, you know, the distribution of economic power in society.

We still have very powerful elements of the Mubarak regime in place that, if not completely calling the shots, are definitely wielding significant power and trying to direct things in a certain way.

CONAN: And where does this leave the secular Egyptians - who a lot of people gave credit for starting all of this back, what, 16, 18 months ago - where does it leave them? They were given the choice between an authoritarian, Mr. Shafiq, and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

SHEHATA: Well, you know, many of the youth who were behind the revolution, as well as the supposed liberals and secular forces, are really having a difficult time right now. They see the choice in front of them as between worse and terrible. And some are holding their nose and voting, or going to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, because he represents some kind of change.

Others who prioritize the idea of a secular state or a civil state are holding their nose and going to choose Shafiq, Mr. Mubarak's last prime minister. And a significant number of them have actually called for either a boycott of the election, or going and voting and invalidating their votes. And we've already seen significant numbers of that in the expatriate voting that has already taken place across the world.

CONAN: Samer Shehata, thank you very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

SHEHATA: My pleasure.

CONAN: Samer Shehata, assistant professor at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University, with us from a studio on the campus there. Up next, NPR's Tom Bowman on five weeks he spent in Afghanistan and the burning question many U.S. troops are asking: Are the Afghans ready? We'll also be speaking with Andrew Exum, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.