The tough business of government

Even after the election of Jhala Nath Khanal, Nepal still has a long way to go.

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After 16 inconclusive parliamentary votes, and while the world was looking elsewhere, Nepal finally elected its new prime minister. On Feb 3 Jhala Nath Khanal, a career politician who recently became the butt of widespread amusement when he was slapped in the face by a disaffected voter, took office. He has his work cut out for him.

Khanal leads the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) which, despite its name, is a centrist organisation. Its coalition partner in the new government is the much more ferocious Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Fifteen years ago this Sunday the Maoists started a decade-long civil war. In 2006 they signed a ceasefire, which they have largely stuck to. In the elections of 2008 they defied predictions to form the bulk of another coalition government, which they promptly walked out on following a disagreement over control of the army. Now the Maoists are again the majority party in parliament, and Khanal, from the left of his own party, has signed a secret deal with them to be allowed to lead the government.

His main concern will be to frame a new constitution by May. Since 2008, when Nepal abolished its monarchy and became a republic, it has been governed according to a limited-term interim constitution. In three months that will expire.

A high degree of consensus will be necessary to place its government on a permanent legal footing. Unfortunately, the Maoists are fiercely opposed by the right of Khanal's party, which was outraged when Khanal's secret agreement came to light. They are opposed by the Nepali Congress, who joined the coalition after the Maoists stormed off and are now rather resentfully in opposition again. And they are mistrusted by India, which is widely thought to have connived to keep Nepal's last prime minister in office. The country's fragile peace is further threatened by the closure last month of the UN mission which had been set up to monitor Nepal's various armed factions.

The analogy with Egypt's situation is not precise. Yet the case of Nepal does serve to illustrate some of the difficulties which can face post-revolutionary states. Like Egypt, Nepal has its own meddling superpower eager to neutralise populist threats. India was quick to congratulate Khanal on his new job but will be eager to see his Maoist allies fail, even at the cost of constitutional crisis in May. America's position on Egypt is more complex, caught as it is between an ideological commitment to democracy and a strategic preference for reliable allies. Accordingly, the Obama administration's tepid endorsements of change in Egypt have been vague, so as to let them to do business with whoever wins out. If that happens to be Mubarak (or his deputy), many in the US government will be relieved.

There are internal similarities, too. The military remains a problem. All societies are regulated, in the end, by the group that can make the most impressive threat of violence. In Nepal the remnants of a powerful Maoist guerrilla movement deprives the state of its monopoly on force. In Egypt the machinery of coercion is more unified, though there remain divisions between the army, the police, and the citizenry. Any government to emerge from the Jan 25 protests will have to find a way to keep these opposed forces in some sort of harmony. Until a stable balance of power is found, each faction will tend to build up its own defensive capability, with potentially dire consequences.

The most general lesson to draw from Nepal's recent history is the simple one that statecraft is hard. The synchronisation of interests that good government requires doesn't come about by chance, or at once. Nepal got its revolution in 2006; it is still waiting for the wheels that were set in motion to come to rest. Earlier this week foreign news crews started checking out of their Cairo hotels. For them, the Egyptian story has paused. In fact, it has merely begun a less photogenic phase - one which is likely to spin out for a long while yet.