With the convening of the country’s first post-revolutionary parliament in late January 2012, Egypt’s troubled transition has entered a new phase. As the battle over Egypt’s future shifts from Tahrir Square to the newly elected People’s Assembly, Egyptians may be facing their most difficult challenges yet. The country’s interim rulers, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), a 20-member body representing all four branches of the Egyptian military (similar to an expanded U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff) have laid out an ambiguous and problematic roadmap. With presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution scheduled to take place by July 1, the transition is imperiled by an ever-present threat of popular unrest as well as an economy teetering dangerously close to collapse. Yet, it is increasingly clear that the most formidable threat to Egyptian democracy comes from the ruling military council itself, through its manipulation of the political process, growing repression, and desire to remain above the law.
Meanwhile, recent events have reconfigured the delicate power balance among the country’s three main centers of power—the military, the Islamists, and those who started the January 2011 uprising. While the ruling military council retains its virtual monopoly on power, its legitimacy has been greatly eroded by its own gross mishandling of the transition. Recent elections handed the Islamists a decisive parliamentary majority, giving the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood an electoral mandate by which to challenge military rule. Meanwhile, the revolutionary youth groups that launched the uprising in Tahrir Square as well as other pro-democracy forces continue to be marginalized by regime repression and a political process that has passed them by.
While Egyptians and well-meaning outsiders continue to hope that recent elections will open the way for a better transition and facilitate the military’s exit from power, parliamentary politics alone may not be enough to reverse the damage done over the previous year or quell the revolutionary fervor simmering just beneath the surface. While a democratic outcome may still be possible in the long run, it will require major changes in how, and by whom, the transition is being managed.