Egypt’s bleak prospects

Published: August 16, 2013.

Transitions from tyranny to representative and accountable government are always uncertain and usually messy, but Egypt’s torment in the undertow of the Arab Spring is a textbook example of failure.

Hundreds of people have been killed in recent days by the army and police. Security forces unleashed overwhelming force against supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, who was deposed in a military coup early in July.

The stage is now set for a prolonged struggle on the streets between the military and the dedicated Islamists of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.

It is a measure of the bleak prospects that about the most encouraging thing that can be said is that there is little chance of the insurrection developing into a full-blown civil war as happened in Syria, Libya and Yemen.

Those countries’ flammable concoctions of religious, ethnic and tribal divisions do not exist in Egypt.

But the military can be expected to be ruthless in trying to suppress the Brotherhood, and especially in seeking to prevent an Islamist insurrection in the Sinai Peninsular, which threatens to destabilize always uncertain relations with neighbouring Israel, from becoming a wider conflict     

And for the foreseeable future there are no credible scenarios which might see the resumption of negotiations between the military and the main political players, especially the Brotherhood and its political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party.

And although there is still, in theory, a timetable in place envisaging a return to civilian, democratic rule early next year, it is hard to imagine that roadmap surviving the military-imposed state of emergency.

Indeed, returning to democracy without first preparing the political and social ground would probably be a mistake at this point.

A major reason for Egypt’s current chaos was the headlong rush to develop a civilian constitution and elect a democratic parliament after the army removed its long-time front man, President Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011, and stepped back from the administration.  

The current impasse with its grim foreboding stems from a series of miscalculations made by all sides with extraordinary consistency from the moment the tide of the Arab Spring swept into Egypt nearly three years ago.

Although it was mass demonstrations by mostly young, middle-class Egyptians in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities that prompted the military to withdraw and set the reform process in motion, it was only the Muslim Brotherhood that was posed to take advantage of the opening.

Through decades of persecution, punctuated by periods of toleration, the Brotherhood had established a formidable grassroots organisation and network.

It also had years of experience getting its members elected to parliament posing as independent candidates.

In contrast, the largely secularist demonstrators energised by the Arab Spring had little political experience and even less of constructing coherent and effective political parties.

The result was that when there were elections first for a body to write a new constitution, then for parliament and the presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party dominated the outcomes.

A longer and more carefully constructed transition period, providing time and encouragement for well-founded political parties to evolve, representing all facets of Egypt’s highly diverse society, might have avoided the bloodshed of the last few days and the dark months that lie ahead.

And when Morsi and the Brotherhood came to power they compounded the miscalculations. They believed their electoral success had given them the right to force through measures establishing Egypt as an Islamic state, even though it was evident that very many Egyptians – perhaps a majority – are opposed to an Islamic state or a religious constitution of any kind.

Coptic Christians, for example, form about 10 per cent of Egypt’s population of nearly 83 million people. They had previously been subject to various forms of discrimination over the years, but during the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood, several Coptic churches have been  attacked and burned.

Then the army miscalculated when Egyptians again took to the streets and squares in June, this time to protest against the Islamist agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The generals thought the Brotherhood would accept without protest the removal of Morsi and his government.

But the Brotherhood’s morale was buoyed by coming to power, and especially by doing so through the ballot box, which they believe gives the party an unassailable legitimacy.

Many western governments agree, however uncomfortable they are with having to support an Islamist party whose long-term objectives are undoubtedly anti-democratic.

The conundrum is especially difficult for the United States and President Barrack Obama, who is legally bound to withdraw support for any military launching a coup against a democratically-elected government.

The logical contortion Washington is going through in order to maintain support for Egypt’s military are extraordinary to watch.

Meanwhile the military has compounded its miscalculations by the savage brutality of its assaults in the last few days on the protest camps of the Brotherhood and its supporters.

This has only severed to strengthen the will of the Brotherhood to resist, made some negotiated way out of the impasse more distant, and given would-be mediators little with which to work.

 Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe