Belmont Club

Egypt and Libya

Although Egypt has dropped below the fold in terms of media attention, events there continue apace. Lee Smith follows what is at stake in the forthcoming referendum, which is the next step in Egypt’s passage to a still unpredictable future. The Wall Street Journal describes the amendments, which are innocuous sounding enough, except that if carried through right now would lead to political domination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The proposed amendments limit the president to two, four-year terms, restore the role of Egypt’s relatively independent judiciary in overseeing elections, lower barriers for independent candidates to run for president and limit the president’s ability to call a state of emergency, among other reforms. …

The amendments also set guidelines for a new parliament to nominate members of a 100-person constitutional congress who would be charged with drafting a new, permanent constitution.

Most of the new parties argue that a “yes” vote Saturday would set the stage for a summer parliamentary vote, as Egypt’s military appears intent on holding parliamentary elections within four months. Whoever dominates that election—many of the new parties fear it will be the Muslim Brotherhood, as do some Western officials— will then be able to place an indelible mark on the country’s political future.

Lee Smith describes the anxiety of other opposition parties who believe that a “Yes” vote in the referendum tomorrow would lead to a co-dominium by the Army and the Muslim Brotherhood. Lee writes:

“This is not about specific articles,” says Amr Bargisi, a senior partner in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. “It is about the opposing political forces pushing for the two options.” Bargisi explains that while the Brotherhood and the military want the yes vote, everyone else from the protests movement is on the other side, pushing for no. …

A yes vote serves the Muslim Brotherhood, says Bargisi, “because it is the only experienced political faction outside the former president’s National Democratic Party. The Brotherhood is better at negotiating, and cutting deals than the other players.”

The rest of the revolution’s players are barely organized. The liberals in particular are in disarray. “They’ve been excluded for decades and were manipulated by the regime,” Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Democracy, tells me. “They’re fragmented, and then there’s personal competition,” she explains. For instance, head of the Ghad party Ayman Nour and leader of the Democratic Front Osama Harb, have ignored chances to pool their resources and are instead vying for supporters. “The liberals want more time to organize,” Mustafa says.

The problem, according to the WSJ, is that while there is no hard polling data on how the referendum will turn out, the Muslim Brotherhood’s grassroots strength suggests they’ll dominate the referendum tomorrow too. The WSJ says:

Though there is little reliable polling to suggest which side is likely to win Saturday’s vote, many fear the Brotherhood’s and NDP’s powerful grass-roots presence throughout Egypt means the proposition is likely to pass.

Still, many of the leading figures behind the revolution that swept Mr. Mubarak from power are vocally opposed to the proposed amendments and have been stumping around Egypt to encourage voters to vote no. Among those opposed, are two of Egypt’s leading presidential candidates, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei, and Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League.

The brotherhood and the NDP counter that a “no” vote would extend Egypt’s post-revolutionary uncertainty by prolonging military rule and discouraging a much-needed economic recovery.


Thus, the conventional wisdom is that the MB is one step closer to riding roughshod over the liberal opposition groups and taking a leading role in Egypt. Such a development would not be without complications because Egypt, besides being on the southern border of Israel, is right next door to Libya.

Speaking of which, Aviation Week reports that the UN has authorized the enforcement of a “no fly zone” over the North African country. Britain and France were said to be taking the lead in providing air assets to implement it, although an announced “ceasefire” by Khadaffi may make actual operations a wait-and-see affair.

While public statements suggest the US will take a supporting role, Wired thinks that the F-22 may see action for the first time, especially if the Libyan air defense must be taken down. Had it been available, something like this would have been more appropriate.

With the operation proceeding under the UN aegis and multiple European governments involved, Khadaffi’s siege of Benghazi threatens to become like the that of Sarajevo, where forces were frozen in place and nothing decisive happened. But in this case, stasis is unlikely. With events in Egypt and Bahrain proceeding in parallel and the entire region subject to unpredictable jolts, Libya bids fair to be as forgotten just as soon as the Egyptian referendum results are known.

History is on the move in the Middle East and just where it is going we will soon find out.


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