Egypt Must Look Back before It Can Move Forward

Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy
Khaled Elgindy Former Brookings Expert, Senior Fellow - Middle East Institute

February 14, 2012

Earlier this month, for the fourth time in nearly as many months, thousands of young Egyptians took to the streets to vent their anger at the country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF). The protesters and large numbers of their compatriots were outraged by the deaths of at least 74 soccer fans killed in a melee between rival fans at a stadium in the Mediterranean coastal city of Port Said on February 1, accusing the SCAF of failing to provide adequate security, and in some instances of deliberately instigating the violence through hired thugs.

Deadly clashes between angry protesters and regime forces have become virtually monthly occurrences in Egypt. For Egypt’s revolutionary youth and large segments of the population, the names of Maspero, Mohammed Mahmoud Street, the Cabinet, and now Port Said are not just locations of regime “massacres” but battle cries in an ongoing revolution. State-sanctioned violence and brutality are of course not new in Egypt, and in fact were a major driving force behind last year’s uprising that brought down former president Hosni Mubarak. But that is precisely the problem: The dictator may be gone, but his methods and mindset remain intact.

It seems all the more paradoxical that episodic protests would continue even after the country has held its first freely contested elections and sworn in its first freely elected parliament. What is behind Egypt’s seemingly chronic unrest?

The country’s military rulers would have Egyptians believe that ongoing protests are the work of “foreign agents,” “hidden hands,” and other mysterious third parties bent on driving a wedge between the Egyptian people and their beloved army and/or destroying the institutions of the state—even suggesting that activists are paid 200 Egyptian pounds (about $33) a day to protest in Tahrir. The SCAF’s recent crackdown on several pro-democracy NGOs, including the criminal indictments of 19 Americans on charges related to illegal funding and fomenting public unrest, is the direct if unspoken ancillary to this fanciful conspiracy.

Such conspiracy theories may strike a populist chord, but there is no shortage of actual reasons for Egyptians to feel unhappy—even angry—at their current condition. With foreign investment and tourism in sharp decline and youth unemployment hovering around 25 percent, the country’s economic crisis is edging toward disaster. This is on top of the SCAF’s gross mishandling of the transition at virtually every stage and in nearly every respect—from its erratic decision-making to its brutal repression of all forms of dissent to its blatant manipulation of the political process.

But there is one grievance that seems to propel revolutionary fervor like no other—and that surprisingly gets relatively little attention from policy makers and analysts around Washington. For all of their lack of strategic vision and cohesiveness, Egypt’s diverse and often unruly revolutionary forces have been decidedly consistent and virtually unanimous in their insistence on three things: bringing former Mubarak regime figures to justice, punishing those responsible for killing of hundreds of their fellow protesters and the maiming and injuring of many thousands more, and compensating the families of the killed and wounded.

In short, Egypt’s young revolutionaries are demanding accountability for past and present crimes as well as an end to the culture of impunity that has defined the relationship between the rulers and the ruled in Egypt for more than six decades and that continues to this very day. To date, no single security officer or commander has been punished for their involvement in the killings of some 900 protesters during last winter’s uprising, much less for the roughly 100 killed since the SCAF took over. Promises to launch independent inquiries into security forces’ repeated use of deadly force have likewise gone nowhere. Even the indictments of former regime figures, including Mubarak and his two sons, came about reluctantly only in response to massive popular pressure and sustained protests, and are still mostly unresolved.

This may explain why something as seemingly non-political as soccer violence could spark several days of rioting in cities across Egypt. Regardless of whether the Port Said tragedy was the result of neglect or something even more sinister, the SCAF bears ultimate responsibility for the general state of insecurity and polarization that has prevailed in the country since it assumed control. The Port Said deaths, like those before them, tapped into an existing and ever-deepening reservoir of resentment against the SCAF and those seen as aligned with it. With each new round of protests come the inevitable deaths and injuries, followed by renewed calls for justice for the martyrs and other victims.

In addition to amplifying calls for reforming the police force and prosecuting those responsible, the tragedy also renewed calls for moving up presidential elections, now scheduled for June, in order to accelerate the SCAF’s return to the barracks. The question of when and how to hold presidential elections as well as drafting a new constitution has been the subject of intense debate among Egyptians for many weeks. The election of a new president and the SCAF’s promised departure will no doubt remove a major source of instability. But it may not be enough.

Egypt’s restless and determined revolutionary youth could soon turn on the new president, much as they are beginning to do now with the new parliament and its Islamist majority, whom they regard as too accommodating of the country’s military rulers. As crucial as parliamentary and presidential elections and a new constitution are to a successful transition to democratic rule, new political institutions alone are unlikely to end the vicious cycle that Egyptians now find themselves in or quell the revolutionary fervor simmering just beneath the surface.

Holding those responsible for past crimes accountable or purging the police force and other security sector reforms cannot be undertaken overnight or in a vacuum. What Egypt needs therefore is a more systematic approach to transitional justice, alongside and complementary with the political transition now underway.

The idea of a truth and reconciliation commission in Egypt, for which there are numerous models around the world, will not be an easy sell with either the rulers or the ruled. Those in power are not any more eager to see mass prosecutions of past crimes than are pro-democracy activists to see blanket amnesties for those who carried them out. However, there are ways to balance the need for accountability with the general desire to move forward.

The newly assembled parliament is well situated to take on this task, not only because of its natural oversight role but as the only institution with the legitimacy to carry out such a crucial function. To be credible, however, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament will need to operate in the open and with full transparency—if only to counter the widely held belief that it is preparing to cut a deal with the military to grant it immunity from prosecution and from budgetary and other forms of oversight.

A peaceful transition will, by definition, require some type of arrangement with the old power structure, in this case the SCAF. So long as the terms of that arrangement are limited in nature and more importantly, known to the general public (ideally beforehand as part of an open debate), such a “deal” need not be regarded as an act of subversion. A transparent process will also enhance the new parliament’s and other revolutionary forces’ leverage vis-à-vis the SCAF, while helping to mitigate its tendency to lash out in desperation by giving it a safe—albeit limited—exit.

Transitional justice is certainly no panacea for Egypt’s many problems, but it can help address aspects of the transition that have been neglected thus far and that remain sources of continued unrest. In the end, without some sort of accounting of the past, Egyptians will find it increasingly difficult to forge a new future.