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ROME, Jul 6 2011 (IPS) - Who could forget the images of joy broadcast worldwide the morning of February 11 from Tahrir Square of people celebrating the announcement by newly-selected vice president Omar Suleiman that Hosni Mobarak, leader of Egypt since 1981, had resigned? The eyes of the thousands of young Egyptians radiated great hopes for the future of their country and deep pride in the courage and tenacity shown during the 18 days of protests. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, once it weighed the pros and cons of abandoning the leader to his fate, “temporarily” took control over the country to initiate the delicate period of transition towards democracy. For a moment everyone, or almost everyone, thought that a new age had dawned, in a “new Egypt”.

But experience teaches that the process of democratisation involves more than simply holding elections and cannot be achieved in just a few months. Instead it is the fruit of a process of hard work that involves every level of society. To tell the truth, of the programme of reforms demanded by the protesters, little has been accomplished in the months since the fall of the regime. And while the transition proceeds step by step towards parliamentary elections, almost every force present in the streets is asking the army to postpone them given the absence of a clear constitutional framework. The only exceptions are the Muslim Brotherhood and what remains of the disbanded former official party, which are the most structured and best organised elements in the scattered post-Mubarak reality.

The current period is thus very delicate. Confrontations between the secular-liberal front and the Islamist front, broadly understood, are growing increasingly polarised and often violent. A not always visible rift has opened between the student movement and the military, which is now often seen not as the guarantor of the people’s demands for freedom and justice but as part of the old regime fighting for its survival. Peaceful protests are now banned and the press is muzzled. And then there were the “virginity tests” carried out last March 9 on unmarried arrested activists with the excuse of protecting the honour of the armed forces by showing that the girls had not been raped in detention but had arrived already not virgins.

But there is another worrisome aspect of the democratisation process that involves the judiciary and military leaders: the so-called “transitional justice”, or the procedures adopted to try exponents of the old regime accused of a range of crimes.

Mubarak, his wife (free on bail), their two children, as well as a series of ex-ministers and pillars of the old ruling class, the so-called “Alexandria clique”, have been arrested and charged with corruption, embezzlement, abuse of office, and homicide. The proceedings have taken place with a clear lack of transparency, using ad hoc rules that are anything but certain, and with sudden juridically inexplicable accelerations. Given that democracy cannot be built on either impunity or vengeance, we believe that the interim government can aid the work of the judiciary by requesting the establishment of an independent international commission to take charge of this process.

It would be a step towards the formation of a “new Egypt”, now too much like the “old Egypt”, to show that the transition from authoritarianism to democracy is complex and intricate. In this phase it is important that Tahrir Square reorganise itself and direct its energies towards upholding the rule of law so that its citizens in a position to participate in the decision-making process as inclusively as possible. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Emma Bonino is vice president of the Italian Senate; Saad Eddin Ibrahim is the founder of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

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