Post-revolutionary Egypt often appears to be on the verge of a breakdown. Strikes and protests remain rampant, while the economy is still moribund. Since July 9, thousands of protesters have been gathering once again in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, accusing the ruling military of betraying their revolution. There have been occasional clashes with regime forces; meanwhile, the generals have been hinting at an attempt to grant themselves extraordinary powers in the new political system.
On closer inspection, there is less cause for alarm. Egypt is progressing steadily — though messily — toward greater freedom. Last week hundreds of police officers implicated in abuses were dismissed, while a cabinet reshuffle this week brought more secular liberals into the civilian administration of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Parliamentary elections have been pushed from September until November to give new democratic parties more time to organize — and to level the playing field with established Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Military leaders have been relatively responsive to demands from the revolutionaries. Even the proposed constitutional enshrinement of military powers has grown out of an attempt by the ruling council of generals to satisfy a demand from many liberals that a new constitution be prepared before elections are held. While continuing to resist that approach, the military says it will issue a “declaration of principles” to govern the writing of the new charter to ensure that basic freedoms are protected.
All this, of course, does not mean that Egypt’s transition to democracy is assured, or that there is no role for the United States and other outside powers to play. While the Egyptian military appears anxious to yield responsibility for government, it will want to protect its privileges — including the large slice of the economy it controls — and prevent Islamic parties from taking power.