After more than two straight weeks of angst in the capital, newly appointed Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman is finally starting to get to work on a transition. In a sign that he takes the demands of the protesters seriously, Suleiman met with multiple representatives of the political opposition on Sunday. As expected, the results of the meeting depend on whom you ask: Suleiman and the Egyptian government are clamoring that all sides reached a consensus on a number of issues while the Muslim Brotherhood is downplaying the event as nothing more than theater.
Regardless of where one stands, no one can doubt the fact that an official dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood is unprecedented in modern Egypt. Ever since the Brotherhood was formed in 1928, its members have been repressed, arrested, detained without trial and in some cases killed by Egyptian forces loyal to the state. The party is still technically banned from running in elections although Brotherhood politicians have found a loophole over the past decade by running as independents (and in some cases, actually winning their races). So the fact that two weeks of demonstrations have brought two adversaries together in the same room after nearly a century of fighting is quite an accomplishment to begin with.
But in hindsight, symbolism doesn’t matter: actual results do. Discussions between Mubarak’s regime and the Brothers may hold a large amount of symbolic significance, but the one thing that actually counts is the written product. Liberal parties will also have to sign onto any prospective agreement, for their participation is essential for a transition that is inclusive, broad based and sustainable.
As to the actual meeting last Sunday, Vice President Sulieman released a statement from his office outlining some of the things that everyone decided to endorse:
- An independent study of the Egyptian constitution by a panel of experts and judges;
- The release of political prisoners;
- The “liberalization” of the media;
- Anti-corruption measures;
- An end to the state of emergency when “threats to the security of society” have ended.
On paper, these are all noteworthy objectives. Investigating corruption, opening up the media space and releasing political dissidents from jail are difficult to oppose, which is probably why all three made their way into the vice president’s official statement.
But there are still quite a few problems that need to be addressed if Suleiman is sincere in mending fences with the opposition.
For starters, it will be very hard to implement all of these agreements in time before presidential elections in September. Will the government launch corruption investigations against leading Egyptian public officials, or will those cases be restricted to lame-duck ministers that can be replaced relatively quickly? Will Al Jazeera, the BBC and CNN be allowed to broadcast without fearing detainment? Is it possible for constitutional amendments to be ratified without the ruling party obstructing the process? And what about the fate of Hosni Mubarak, whose name was completely absent from the list?
The second problem is whether this initial round of negotiations will be enough to placate the tens of thousands of Egyptians on the street. Although some of the protesters want to get back to their normal lives, tens of thousands are still vowing to occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo until their number one demand is met — the complete eradication of Mubarak and his regime.
In reality, there is a huge divide between the men and women who have braved the regime for the past two weeks and the negotiators who are trying to ring concessions from Mubarak’s second in command. The people want a complete break from the old regime-opposition dynamic, rightly viewing the arrangement as an inadequate formula. The old guard opposition leaders, on the other hand, desperately want to use the protests as their own personal opportunity, either to settle scores or win power for themselves.
The vice president’s statement is a step in the right direction. But if any governing transition is to work, Suleiman and the other men across his table need to arrive at a detailed understanding of how the “consensus” is going to be executed.