The Egyptain Conundrum
Having undergone an incredible bloodbath, the land of the pharaohs still finds itself at the centre of a serious political dilemma with no solution in sight.
What a paradox that Egypt’s modern-day Jasmine Revolution lasted for just about two years and time came full circle when a court ordered Hosni Mubarak’s release from prison on August 22. For whatever it was worth, the move tended to further deepen the crisis caused when the country’s armed forces cracked down on the supporters of Mohammad Morsi, the democratically elected president who was ousted from power on July 3, 2013. The upheaval had actually set the ball rolling for a veritable bloodbath.
Mohammad Morsi was an Egyptian politician who served as the first democratically elected President of Egypt, from June 30, 2012 to July 3, 2013. He was a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which is
said to be the world’s most influential Islamist movement. His predecessors had also held elections which were generally marred by irregularities and allegations of rigging and he was the first president to have entered the President’s House after a democratically held election, as opposed to his predecessors who came into power as revolutionaries (Nasser) and as appointed successors (Sadat, Mubarak).
One of the major achievements of the popular street protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 was the ushering in of a freely and credibly contested electoral democracy for the first time in the history of the country. However, by arrogating to itself the role of architect of modern Egypt, the army also assumed the role of referee in the contest between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular and liberal revolutionary forces though the former won the country’s first democratic elections. Once Morsi came to power, he tried to control the army but it did not go a long way and the men in uniform continued to remain considerably powerful.
Despite the fact that Morsi’s was a democratic election, his one year rule did not have much of an impact on
the hordes of political, economic and security challenges that the country continued to face. And again, it was the army that called the shots – literally and metaphorically. This enabled it to direct Egyptian politics the way it wished and rather than acting as a referee, it took the side of those who were protesting against Morsi’s rule.
In deposing Morsi, the army dissolved the country’s democratically elected parliament and suspended the national constitution, which had been adopted by popular referendum less than a year ago. In this manner, the army once again ensured its continuity as a power broker and kingmaker and was instrumental in the setting up of a caretaker government and a new transitional head of state. In fact, the head of the army, General Abdel Fattah Al Sissi, called for a popular demonstration to give him the mandate to fight ‘violence and terror.’
Come August 14, there was another turning point in Egyptian politics as the military had asserted itself fully by then. It was not clear where the resistance put up by the Muslim Brotherhood and its violence with the opposing protestors would lead. The mass killings led to a worst-case scenario, deepening the polarization and confrontation in the country which led it down the road to serious social strife and blood-letting.
The deadly crackdown on protesters on August 14, in fact, made the scenario more murky and uncertain and the country seemed to be headed towards an incredible level of chaos and destruction. It also seemed as if the army’s role was becoming bigger and that it would use the state of emergency declared by the government to crack down even more ferociously on its perceived enemies and give shape to its role in the ‘authoritarian’ transition. It was clear that the dismissal of Morsi by the army and its supporters had put a slammer on Egypt’s full democratic transformation and had pushed it to the brink of disaster.
It has been argued by some that the challenges facing the country following the Arab Spring went back to the era of President Nasser and before. Gamal Abdul Nasser was involved in Egypt’s 1952 military coup and later seized the presidency.
“The coup leader – the hero Mohammed Naguib – gave an example of humility by refusing promotion to the rank of ‘lieutenantgeneral’…This proves that the army does not want power, just the general good,” wrote Egypt’s renowned historian, Abd al-Rahman al-Rafai, in al-Akhbar newspaper on 1 August 1952. His statement did not stand the test of time.
By February 1954, the humble coup leader, Mohammed Naguib, who served as Egypt’s first president, was removed by the younger and more power-hungry officers led by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser. Back then, Egypt was as divided as it is now. One part of the country wanted a parliamentary democracy, a return to constitutionalism and the army’s return to the barracks. Another part wanted a strong and charismatic patron who promised land and bread. By November 1954, the latter part had not only crushed the former but also destroyed its demands, such as basic freedom and parliamentary constitutionalism. The cost was the establishment of an officers’ republic – a state where the armed institutions were above any other, including the elected ones.
The January 2011 revolution challenged that 1954 status quo in many ways. The revolutionaries this time clashed with a 21st Century junta: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The SCAF was a politically conservative, unconstitutional body that ruled Egypt between February 2011 and June 2012. After the removal of Mubarak in February 2011, the SCAF had a minimum of three demands: a veto in high politics, independence for the army’s budget and economic empire, and legal immunity from prosecution on charges stemming from corruption or repression. It also wanted constitutional prerogatives to guarantee those arrangements.
These demands were reflected in a July 2012 constitutional addendum that gave the SCAF the prerogatives of the first post-revolution parliament. The prevailing polarization would only spell further disaster and no one would be in a position to come out as the exclusive winner of the stalemate. But the government had to shoulder the burden of taking major conciliatory steps to end the polarization.
It is not clear if the current military-led government in Egypt is disposed to such measures without the revolutionary forces bringing their influence to bear. As things stand, it is certain that Egypt’s crisis is nowhere close to reaching an end. The Egyptian army now wears the mantle of judge, jury and executioner and, having done away with Morsi, it rules the roost,
So where is Egypt headed – towards democracy or military rule? Will the current escalation of violence lead to a democratic process or will it further plunge the country into the kind of chaos it has never witnessed before?
The answer to Egypt’s crisis lies in achieving a win-win political settlement rather than the current zero-sum game. A clear lesson that has emerged from Morsi’s one-year rule and the tragedy of August 14 is that no single Egyptian political force is in a position to lead the country and deal with the political, economic and security challenges it faces. The situation is a complex one and a permanent solution has to be found if the country is to survive as a major Islamic state. The writer is Editor of this magazine and a regular contributor on political subjects.
Mohammad Morsi, former President of Egypt