Dr. Fahed Al-Sumait, a professor of communications at the Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait and a research fellow at MEI for the 2011-2012 academic year, gave an interview to the Singaporean Malay language newspaper Berita Harian earlier this month about political transitions in Egypt and Libya. MEI Research Assistant Nurhidayahti Mohammad Miharja translated the article from Malay to English. While developments in both countries have shifted quickly since the interview, with, for example, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi dismissing a number of military leaders and annulling constitutional declarations made by the military, Dr. Al-Sumait’s comments provide context and perspective on the political process unfolding in the Middle East—particularly in regard to democratization.
Libya and Egypt at the Crossroads
By Linilidia Abdul Hamid
Since the revolts against dictatorships in the Arab countries, known as the “Arab Spring,” began last January, several Arab countries have already initiated the move toward democracy.
However, change after decades of dictatorship is challenging as each country brings with it its own unique set of issues.
Linilidia Abdul Hamid sought the views of Assistant Professor of Communication at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Dr. Fahed Al-Sumait, on the current situation in Egypt and Libya. Dr. Al-Sumait was a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore, during the 2011-2012 academic year.
“While there have been multiple discussions on the Arab Spring as a phenomenon, the impact of the revolts differs greatly in each country,” he said.
In Egypt, the reformation process has been complicated with the dissolution of the parliament by the High Court, on the grounds that the election held to elect members of parliament was void due to flaws in the election laws.
The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, which makes up President Mohamed Morsi’s power base, holds the majority in parliament.
In fact, prior to Morsi’s swearing in, the military announced its takeover of legislative and judicial power in an effort to limit his presidential power.
Although the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was first established to govern the transitional period before the situation in Egypt stabilized, it recently has been seen as increasingly reluctant to hand over its power.
Many view the present political deadlock as a power struggle between SCAF and the party.
According to Dr. Al-Sumait, the revolts continue in Egypt as SCAF continues to be in power.
“Although Hosni Mubarak is gone, which is in itself a great achievement, the military still controls 40 percent of the Egyptian economy,” he said. “They control most of the country’s executive power and they are very reluctant to relinquish power, and instead have enacted more laws to increase power. As a result, until the situation changes, the transition toward a more open political system remains unclear.”
Power Rivalry in Egypt
The power struggle in Egypt between its military, presidential institution, and desires of the people may plunge the country into a prolonged political vortex.
Indeed, according to Dr. Al-Sumait, the power struggle is not limited to President Morsi and SCAF but also the masses.
“I can see many possible challenges for Egypt in moving forward, with SCAF refusing to relinquish power. We will see a prolonged struggle and in the absence of a parliament now, it becomes increasingly difficult and we do not know whether the committee responsible for drafting the constitution is still valid,” he said.
He added that the division of power in the future remains unclear.
“SCAF, having most of the executive power, limits President Morsi’s ability to regain power,” he said.
However, he added that Egypt is unlikely to move forward without the presence of the military.
“There are currently three groups who will not retreat from Egypt. They include the military, the Islamists, and collective action by the people. There will be more clashes between these different groups in the future,” he said.
According to Dr. Al-Sumait, for SCAF to relinquish some of its authority, the constitution needs to clearly define the role of political institutions in the country.
“Secondly, the judiciary needs to be able to act independently. Thus far, it can be seen that the judiciary is in favor of SCAF and until you have an independent judiciary, it will affect the ability of justice to prevail,” he said.
He also said that there are other pressing issues, such as the new general elections and its potential repercussions.
“Once the new parliament is firmly established, it will strive to ensure that the next step is taken and it is bound to oppose SCAF,” said Dr. Al-Sumait.
However, he added that the upcoming structure of the country’s constitution and parliament remains unclear.
This is because there is no guarantee that the Muslim Brotherhood will repeat its success in the elections because they have already broken some of their promises.
“We do not know the form the new parliament will take or the structure of the new constitution. We do not know whether the judicial system will be able to escape from the clutches of SCAF,” Dr. Al-Sumait said. “All these issues will play a role in the transition of power away from the military.”
Meanwhile, Libya’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) under the leadership of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril successfully won 39 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties in the General National Congress.
However, it is still far from controlling the country’s 200-seat General National Congress because the remaining 120 seats that will lead Libya through the transition process are open for independents whose loyalty is difficult to determine.
The political wing of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Development Party, managed to win only 17 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties.
General National Congress
Besides serving as the Libyan parliament and forming a transitional government, the General National Congress is also responsible for drafting the country’s new constitution.
It replaces the National Transitional Council, which governed Libya after Qaddafi’s ouster.
The congress chief is expected to act as interim head of state while the council drafts the national legislation.
It will also form a cabinet that will govern until the new constitution, written by 60 panel members, emerges.
The panel will be selected either by the council or by popular vote.
Rejection of the Islamists in Libya
While Islamists dominate the political scene in Tunisia and Egypt, it is unclear which group will eventually come to power in Libya.
According to Dr. Al-Sumait, the Islamists in Libya are not as structured as their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, who were chosen to lead their respective countries.
“For example, in Tunisia, the Ennahda Party existed in exile and is quite structured but the Islamists in Libya are less integrated with the community compared to Egypt and Tunisia,” he said.
He added that Libya also faces bigger challenges in developing the country, as it has no previous national system such as in Tunisia and Egypt.
“They need to start from scratch and they now face major challenges such as the absence of political parties, strong opposition, and civil society,” said Dr. Al-Sumait. “They also need to face the effects of civil war, and this means that they have armed militia stronger than the central government.”
This, he added, means that issues of security and national unity constitute major and urgent problems in Libya.
There are currently many discussions on the transition to democracy, but focusing on the transition adds disenchantment.
“People will feel disappointed, saying that they have yet to achieve democracy. I think it is more constructive to think of democracy as a process,” said Dr. Al-Sumait.
He highlighted that it took the Western countries hundreds of years to achieve the level of democracy enjoyed today.
“In the Middle East, it may take several generations before we see the establishment of what we consider to be democracy today. It is an ever-continuing process and will never be completed,” he said.
In order to move forward, one of the things that needs to be addressed by Libya and Egypt is to establish a constitution that will protect minority rights and outline the roles of institutions in society, which in turn will develop a framework that forms the basis for these countries’ political systems.
“Both countries are struggling with this issue. and clearly each country is made up of different societies that the constitution should represent,” Dr. Al-Sumait said. “I think both countries know what to do. The more pressing question is not what to do but how. They know the issues—to be economically competitive, reform the education system, improve international relations, bring in foreign investment, deal with security, rebuild their country after decades of dictatorship; the two countries are bound to face these issues.”