x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Only an elected government can reform Egypt

The scenes on Egypt's streets are depressingly familiar. But the policy that will oversee real change will be guided by a civilian government.

When Egyptians celebrated the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February, many people put their faith in the military. Democracy was the incontrovertible goal, but navigating this new terrain meant relying on the country's most capable institution. Many felt that Mr Mubarak's departure heralded a new Egypt.

Nine months later, the scenes on the streets are depressingly familiar. Protesters have returned to Tahrir Square bringing greater demands for a transition to civilian rule.

The events following the January 25 revolution should not be underestimated, but they did not change the nature of politics overnight. The first leader who succeeded Mr Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman, was a stalwart of the old regime who formally handed power to the military. Even the most recent prime minister, Essam Sharaf, was a member of the old regime, although known as a reformer.

As Egyptians continue to protest against the established powers, in this case the military, there is the unavoidable truth that vestiges of the old political order still dominate the country. For the army, with its deep hold on the economy as the nation's largest employer, there is no easy way to disentangle itself from power - even if the generals wished to do so.

Yet protesters insist on the resignation of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That might release pressure, which has been expressed as protests on the street, but it would not extricate the military from political life.

Protests may be a blunt tool to reform institutions, but there is little doubt about the newfound power wielded on the streets. The military is already showing signs of standing down, apologising for the violence and promising justice for those responsible. The prospect of an even more brutal sweep of Tahrir Square seems to be receding.

General Mokhtar El Mola yesterday acknowledged the culture of entitlement that has hobbled Egypt, entitlement that directly implicates the military. "There is corruption that went on for years," Gen El Mola said, "it is impossible within a few months ... to put an end to corruption."

Egypt still has many of the weaknesses that kept it back during the Mubarak years. Protesters, at the cost of some of their lives, have forced a change of course that will eventually see major reform of the army's role in society. But the policy that will oversee this change will be guided by a civilian government. Until elections, beginning on Monday, Egypt is in for more of the same.