Egypt, a state of confusion

Fourteen months after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, a new Egypt is still a work in progress -- or possibly regress.

The opposition that swelled Cairo’s Tahrir Square has fractured into Islamist and secular factions. The Islamist-dominated parliament continues to compete for influence with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. And last week a presidential election scheduled for May was thrown into confusion. First an administrative court suspended the work of a 100-member assembly charged with writing a new constitution, raising the possibility that a president will be elected before the nature of the new Egyptian state is defined. Then on Saturday an election commission disqualified 10 presidential candidates, including the three front-runners: Omar Suleiman, Mubarak’s intelligence chief; Khairat Shater, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Hazem Salah abu Ismail, an ultraconservative Islamist. They were given two days to appeal the decisions.

Out of this confusion a stable, democratic and pluralist Egypt might still emerge, but much will depend on the behavior of the military council and the Brotherhood. The military must resist the temptation to abort or delay the election because of recent legal complications, but the Brotherhood and other Islamists shouldn’t give the council an excuse for such interference.

The Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party signaled over the last year that they did not intend to establish a rigid theocracy or seek control of all branches of government. But the Brotherhood backed away from its promise not to field a presidential candidate, and the parliament under its sway named a constitutional assembly so dominated by Islamists that several secular and Christian appointees boycotted it. (So did a representative from Al-Azhar, a famous seat of Islamic learning.)

The rule of law is important, but in this transitional period the military council — which continues to exercise ultimate authority — should commit itself to the most open and transparent presidential election possible, one in which voters can choose from a broad range of candidates. As for the constitutional assembly, the Egyptian administrative court suspended its work after critics claimed that it was illegal for parliament to appoint its own members to the body. The Brotherhood should take the court’s decision as an opportunity to appoint a new assembly in which minority groups and secularists will have meaningful representation. As in Northern Ireland, numerical majority rule in Egypt is not sufficient to protect minorities or assure individual freedoms. The new Egypt should respect both democracy and diversity.