The generals who seized power in Egypt last week seem to be doing their best to show that they don’t intend to rule the country for longer than necessary. Interim president Adly Mansour has outlined a timetable for a return to democracy that provides for a panel to be convened within 15 days to review the constitution, with changes to be put to a referendum within four months.
Parliamentary elections would then be held, probably at the beginning of next year, with presidential elections to follow. (That was also the timetable used after the revolution, but the parliamentary election was subsequently invalidated by the courts, leaving president Mohammad Morsi to rule alone, badly.)
Mansour has also made a start on a new government, appointing economist and former finance minister Hazem el-Beblawi as prime minister and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as foreign minister. He has also promised to offer ministerial positions to Islamists – those from both Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Nour party.
It’s been widely reported that the popular discontent that led to Morsi’s overthrow stemmed largely from economic causes, so having someone at the top who knows how to get the economy moving again makes a lot of sense.
Apparently the original idea was for the liberal secularist ElBaradei to be prime minister, but this was too much for Nour. And while I have little time for fundamentalists, it seems a good thing that the interim authorities are listening to Islamist opinion. Since the different Islamists between them won more than 60% of the vote at the parliamentary election 18 months ago, it would be absurd to try to govern the country without their participation.
Without Nour’s participation, the interim government, even with the best intentions, will look like a sham. With it, even if the Brotherhood stays out, it will have a credible claim to majority support.
The sombre background to this political manoeuvring is the death of more than 50 people on Monday in a violent confrontation between the army and Brotherhood demonstrators. Juan Cole has a typically even-handed assessment of what actually happened; clearly there was fault on both sides. But national reconciliation is going to be a very hard task if the army keeps using live ammunition against civilians.
In any event, bringing the Brotherhood back within the tent is certainly not going to happen overnight. But Mansour seems committed to making the attempt, and the examples of Turkey and Tunisia are there to show that Islamist parties can govern sensibly.
My view is that at the moment there are grounds for cautious optimism about Egyptian democracy. It could still go horribly wrong, but so far this is not looking like Algeria, where the generals tore up the rule book to prevent the Islamists winning power and unleashed a bloody civil war. Egypt’s military looks as if it has at least tried to learn something from that experience.