President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to dismiss several military leaders – most importantly the minister of defence, the army’s chief of staff, the commander of military police and the chief of intelligence – is a key transition in the history of civilian and military relations in Egypt.
Despite its significance, it is not enough to guarantee a transition that remedies the political mistakes of the past. The value of the dismissals lies in the fact that these are the first steps in establishing civilian sovereignty in confronting military authority that has controlled the course of events away from the will of the people since the creation of the modern state.
Because of its symbolic significance, it was possible to mute the debate about the motives and ignore the fact that those who were dismissed were decorated with the highest orders in the country. Nonetheless, we should not overlook the remaining steps needed to make these dismissals part of the transition to what the revolution aimed to create.
Transitioning to new conditions cannot occur by changing the players only, but there must also be structural changes that include the structure of the state, its institutions and laws that allowed the creation and continuation of undesired conditions on many planes. Also, the ability to carry out these structural changes is the main challenge for revolutions and efforts at change. It is harder than dismissing a handful of people because it threatens the interests of broader sectors of the former regime’s men, and thus resistance is fiercer. At the same time, sometimes it threatens interests beyond the border, some regional and others international.
Success in carrying out these changes is proportionate to coming closer to desired conditions, and these structural changes on the path to transition are an added element to other factors of justice and not an alternative to them. It is an addition to penalising culprits and compensating victims in various ways. The sum of all these steps is called transitional justice which is a deeper justice that looks beyond just the crime but also at the reasons behind them and scrutinises them.
The result, then, is putting the system on trial not its members, and thus dealing with some of its members and employees – especially those in the lower tiers – as culprits and victims at the same time, which could reduce the penalty for some of them or eliminate it altogether for others. Meanwhile, political responsibility remains with senior regime officials and those involved in felonies.
In order to succeed, the steps that regulate transition must take place according to a comprehensive strategy because without that, the decisions that President Morsi took may be considered enough for the revolutionaries in terms of retribution from officials (at least politically) for the killing of hundreds, but are insufficient to guarantee real change and prevent a repetition of these crimes.
The strategy would outline the framework of required change, and the objective requisites for successful transition as seen in the experience of other states that underwent successful and failed transitions.
The first condition for successful transition is to know the facts of the previous condition that needs to be amended. This is usually carried out by an independent well-connected investigation committee whose work is outlined by the desired change. In general, this includes human rights violations by the regime against the people including extrajudicial executions, illegal detention, torture, forcible disappearance, travel bans, etc. Revealing the whole truth in these cases is essential to guarantee that they will not be repeated and to compensate the victims and penalise the culprits.
Egypt’s strategy for transition should deal with three other issues. First, political corruption in which some state institutions are involved with interest networks; elections were rigged; political parties were poisoned and detonated; new serious political parties were banned; many political institutions (including parliament and government) were stripped of their political character; and the media was steered in the direction that serves these goals. It also involved some judicial bodies, many security agencies, the National Democratic Party, and businessmen surrounding it, as well as others. A close investigation of what happened must take place, to eliminate the danger of honest elections and vigorous political life being held hostage to the will of the powers that be.
The second issue is economic corruption, which includes pilfering the country’s resources whether state-owned land sold dirt cheap; or resources under the control of the military institution that are managed more like in a slave or feudal system; or gas exported at a fraction of its market price; or the public sector privatised to “accountants” at lower than basic asset prices; or reports after the revolution about economic resources that were managed outside the system of oversight and state budget, and their profits distributed between the presidency and the president’s family.
Dealing with this issue should not be limited to punishing the corrupt, but also addressing the discrepancies that allowed for this corruption to occur, whether the laws, oversight bodies or relations between institutions.
The third issue is administrative corruption or negligence and laxity at state institutions that killed thousands of Egyptians either by drowning on a ferry or burning on a train or under the rubble of collapsed buildings or cancer from state-imported pesticides or terrorist operations that security agencies – too distracted with politics – were unable to stop. Uncovering the whole truth on these issues would result in laws, rules, restructuring relations between institutions, and overhauling operating mechanisms to guarantee higher efficiency, higher performance and better service to the public.
Excavating the whole truth on all four issues is crucial if the president and those in power wish to achieve real change to complete what began with dismissing military leaders who were viewed as part of Mubarak’s regime. Success in eliminating them and structural remedies of past mistakes would achieve the goals of the revolution; otherwise, the steps the president took would amount to nothing more than appeasement and replacing one elite group with another – without changing the causes of corruption and tyranny.
The way to success on these needed changes could perhaps be the topic of a future article.