On April 4, 2011, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Ahmed Maher, co-founder of the April 6 Youth Movement and a key organizer of the anti-Mubarak protests in Cairo, and Mohamad Arafat, member of Mohamed ElBaradei’s campaign and a founder of the recently established Social Democratic Party of Egypt. Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, joined the discussion from Washington, D.C.. The talk addressed Egypt’s ongoing political transition, particularly the role of the country’s youth in fomenting change in the post-Mubarak era, and was followed by a lively question and answer session moderated in Doha by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and in Washington D.C. by Daniel Byman, director of research at the Saban Center. The discussion was attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, diplomatic, and media communities as well as an audience in Washington, DC.
Ahmed Maher began by speaking about the challenges facing post-Mubarak Egypt, saying the period may be the most difficult in the nation’s history. He spoke about the need for political institutions, parties, and civil society, as Mubarak’s ruling party dominated all aspects of Egypt’s political life for three decades. Maher highlighted the need to increase awareness among the population about the importance of expediting democratic rule in the country. He cited demonstrations on Friday, April 1 as the beginning of a “second wave of protests,” to express popular discontent with decisions imposed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). In particular, Maher cited the importance of reshaping the political and electoral systems and bringing to justice corrupt and repressive army and police chiefs.
Maher stressed that he and the April 6 movement are committed to applying continuous pressure on SCAF until they accomplish the revolution’s aims. The group will continue holding Friday protests in the hope of preventing counterrevolutionary forces from returning to power. Maher also stressed that April 6 aims to reorganize and represent the youth, yet does not intend to become a political party. Maher described the role of the movement as “watchdogs for democratic reform and transformation.”
Mohamad Arafat spoke about how Egyptians, particularly youth, had felt alienated in their country before the revolution and had very few means of participating in politics. In the beginning of 2010, according to Arafat, with the return of Mohamad ElBaradei to the country, Egyptians felt they had someone speaking for them and trying to unite them in a positive way. Arafat was inspired by ElBaradei and joined his movement, which organized a number of demonstrations. It was not until January of this year that the barrier of fear, which had long prevented Egyptians from taking political action, was lifted. ElBaradei’s group joined numerous others, representing a variety of different ideologies, to protest against the Mubarak regime.
In the post-Mubarak era, Egypt has regained its prominent position in the Arab world and has become a model for other Arab countries, Arafat said. He spoke particularly about how the new Social Democratic Party, which he has helped form, draws its members from several different age groups and political leanings, united by their belief that a political party should bring people together to achieve social justice and democracy. Though there is less time than the party had hoped before parliamentary elections, Arafat said, it will participate in elections and hopes to help craft a constitution that reflects all aspirations of the Egyptian people.
Steven Cook began his remarks by stressing that Egypt is now experiencing a competition over legitimacy. SCAF hopes to retain the legitimacy it has held since the last revolution in 1952, while the protesters, who have earned legitimacy through their recent actions, are trying to retain their position as well. Further, elements of the discredited Mubarak regime are continuing to cling to power and trying to regroup. Though a functioning democracy could emerge, or the old regime could possibly reconstitute itself, what is much more likely, according to Cook, is something more akin to Egypt in the 1930s and 1940s, when the political environment was pluralistic yet destabilized, largely because a great number of parties remained in intense competition over who would lead. This dynamic of power politics destabilized the political arena; those who wanted a representative political system were ultimately thwarted; and the authoritarian system that produced the Mubarak regime emerged. Therefore, according to Cook, the challenge for groups like April 6 and Social Democracy Party is to develop a broad coalition to confront counterrevolutionaries and to demonstrate that legitimacy still lies with the opposition.
Cook also spoke about the proper role for the United States in a post-Mubarak Egypt. He stressed that it would be a great mistake for the United States to attempt to shape and manage the Egyptian transition. Rather, the United States should approach change with a light touch, realizing that the transition should be focused on what Egyptians want, rather than what the United States believes is best for Egypt or will serve American interests. In the short run, the political dynamics in Egypt will quite naturally force any new government to diverge in critical areas from U.S. interests, Cook said. In the long-run, however, a more economically successful and democratic Egypt, will be a better partner for the United States.
Following remarks by members of the panel, the question and answer session covered a range of issues, including the role of women in a democratic Egypt, the threat of counterrevolution, and how to improve Egypt’s economic situation. Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, asked whether it seemed likely that more tensions would emerge between secular youth organizations and Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. Maher responded that the Brotherhood is a moderate, mainstream group, and that because democracy must be for all, no group should be excluded. Arafat answered that the Muslim Brotherhood has played a key role in Egyptian politics as the largest party of resistance to the Mubarak regime. Because of its experience, he said, the Brotherhood can be a positive influence, as long as the Brotherhood retains its commitment to principles of civil democracy. Arafat also pointed out that Egyptian political life in the past was so stunted that it forced Egyptians to choose between either the ruling party or the Muslim Brotherhood as the only viable opposition. With more options, the Brotherhood is likely to lose some of its support to new, emerging parties.
An audience member in Washington asked about the nature of dialogue between revolutionaries and the SCAF, as well as what efforts are being made to increase transparency within the SCAF. Maher described the process of meeting as one of negotiation and said that after a third meeting, no new dialogue had been scheduled. Maher stressed that that the youth movement refuses to accept a military regime. Overall, Maher described the process as lacking clarity; protesters remain confused about why the SCAF has made certain decisions and who exactly the decision-makers are. The new wave of protests is meant to demonstrate this commitment to democracy, he said. Arafat agreed with Maher that the youth are suffering from a lack of transparency and that the only solution is to pressure the SCAF to be more transparent. Steven Cook highlighted that the SCAF is interested primarily in order and stability, with very little ideological content in its actions. The Egyptian military has no sense of how to manage politics, as it has no experience doing so, and therefore a sense of “ad-hocery” has emerged. The council has been opaque, in Cook’s view, largely because it knows its goals yet not the means of achieving them.
Another question concerned whether the United States should continue providing military aid to Egypt and whether Egypt is seeking debt forgiveness from the United States. Maher said that aid should continue, as it is regulated by conventions and treaties. He also said he considers U.S. aid as a means of apologizing to the Egyptian people for its support for Mubarak and that this aid should help develop society in fields of education, culture, and civil society. Maher highlighted the need for a broader change in the American vision of the Middle East. The United States, in his view, should aim to solve the Palestinian conflict and end its support for authoritarian regimes. Cook agreed that military aid should, and likely will, continue, as it has been helpful for both sides. He also said debt forgiveness would be a show of good faith and particularly helpful, as Egypt faces an increasingly challenging economic situation.