Saving the Titanic
Though Egypt now has a freely elected president, the first of the second republic, it is not yet out of the dangerous waters into which it has ventured, writes Ayman El-Amir
By the power of Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 25 January 2011 Revolution, Egypt has elected its first civilian president in six decades. The euphoria of victory is mixed with some fears of what comes next in a country where protest and great expectations reign.
The post-revolution conduct of policy was a comedy of errors. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) initially declared itself the guardian of the revolution and eventually took over all powers for an interim period. Like the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) of the 1952 military coup, it had little experience in managing policy or state affairs. Unlike the 1952 RCC, which promptly imposed military dictatorship, SCAF slowly responded to the cacophony of slogans and agendas arising from Tahrir Square, all claiming to represent the revolution. In the course of 16 months, Egypt went through one referendum, two elections and a run-off, all in the wrong order. One major priority that was delayed, a sine qua non, was drafting a new constitution to replace the 1971 constitution. The threat of chaos still looms.
When SCAF began to respond to "the people's demands" from Tahrir Square, the loudest, most powerful and most sonorous sounds came from the Muslim Brotherhood. For the single-minded Brotherhood, it was an 82-year-old dream come true to rule Egypt and turn it into an Islamic model for all Muslims throughout the world to behold. Well-organised, disciplined, hungry for power and speaking in the name of God and His Prophet to a country that has revered religion for 6,000 years, they were unbeatable. They cleared Tahrir Square of most young men and women who triggered the revolution and allied themselves with SCAF in the name of fulfilling the objectives of the revolution -- in the same way they did during the 1952 coup. The alliance lasted only until the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, joined by a newly-born Salafist movement and the Nour Party, overwhelmingly won the legislative elections and moved into the People's Assembly. Heady with the wine of victory, the Brotherhood started their onslaught on SCAF and all state institutions, "in the name of the people" or "the revolution". They targeted the government of Kamal El-Ganzouri and tried to topple it. Then they sought to dominate the proposed Constituent Assembly by manipulating its composition to reserve the majority for the Brotherhood and its allies. Then they started attacking the judiciary, from the criminal court trying Hosni Mubarak all the way to the Supreme Constitutional Court. The Brotherhood used its effective weapon of mobilisation to confront SCAF's power-wielding authority. The Brotherhood/Freedom and Justice Party used the power of Tahrir Square to force the hand of SCAF and the Supreme Constitutional Court to abrogate all decisions and judicial rulings. The nation was divided.
This was the environment in which the run-off of the presidential elections and the vote counting took place. Following a laborious process, the Freedom and Justice Party candidate, Mohamed Mursi, was elected the first president of the second republic, beating his opponent, General Ahmed Shafik, by a vote of 51.7 per cent to 48.3 per cent in a round where 51 per cent of eligible Egyptian voters took part. It was a battle of polarisation and mobilisation par excellence. The Brotherhood and its party successfully painted Shafik, a former Air Force commander and the last prime minister under Mubarak, as a loyal follower of the former regime. Shafik's campaign, rather unsuccessfully, tried to intimidate Egyptians by portraying Mursi as the omen of a theocratic state. The Brotherhood won. Six hours after the start of vote counting by more than 13,000 electoral subcommittees nationwide, Mursi told a press conference he had won the presidency and warned of rigged results. He thus pre-empted the final outcome. Prior to the announcement of the results, the Brotherhood started a large-scale campaign in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to the effect that if Mursi were not declared the winner, it would be the result of fraud. This was combined with a virulent attack on the military and SCAF, all coordinated by the Brotherhood, which also threatened bloodshed on the streets if Mursi lost.
SCAF acted wisely in avoiding a confrontation. On 25 January 2011, the military sided with the revolution against Mubarak, who wanted to crush the uprising. The election of Mohamed Mursi as president is one important step towards rebuilding state institutions and establishing stability. It would mean that the uprising, like all previous revolutions, should yield revolutionary power to institutional political management. Tahrir Square should no longer dictate political change to the military or the government and especially to the judiciary. Political movements and activists should focus on building the foundations of a democratic political system without manipulating crowds in Tahrir Square.
Political arrangements prior to the elections left the new president without a parliament, important political portfolios, including defence and interior affairs, and the right to dissolve parliament or to appoint the prime minister. Most importantly, the president is straitjacketed by a supplementary constitutional declaration that primarily kept the armed forces out of the hands of the president. SCAF was protecting its vital interests and also the interests of the majority of Egyptians who were either not eligible to vote or chose against the winning candidate. However, it also created a political vacuum that should be resolved either by negotiations and compromise or by pressure from Tahrir Square where some protesters have staged a sit-in, vowing to hold their ground until their demands are met. Egypt has freely elected its first civilian president in 60 years, but still remains an incomplete democracy.
The election of Mursi will be viewed as a vindication of the decades-long struggle of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab region. This impetus will provide hope and encouragement to Muslim Brotherhood-backed parties in Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Algeria and Jordan. A regional alliance and mutual support among them is not far-fetched. Egypt has had its influence in the Arab region for decades, even in her moments of weakness. Mursi's victory will impact the Arab region in a way that would raise hopes but also promote a culture of opposition.
Differences between President Mursi, backed by the Freedom and Justice Party, and the military will persist. Egypt has not developed a culture of difference, debate and compromise -- a relic of six decades of dictatorship. Whether Egypt will pursue the Turkish model, which had been far from peaceful, or the Malaysian model of slow transformation is hard to tell. By all indications SCAF is averse to using military force to suppress protest but is equally unwilling to throw up its hands and give in to the loudest shriek coming out of Tahrir Square.
This is not the worst-case scenario facing President Mursi. The Salafis, with their newly won power are difficult to predict. They may be divided between the principles of obedience to the ruler and judging him by how closely is he abiding by the strictest principles of Islam and Sharia law. The seeds of conflict abound.
It was exactly one hundred years ago that the Titanic, the pride of ocean-liners of the early 20th century, hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage and sank. More than 1,450 passengers went down with it. After presidential elections and a run-off, Egypt is today in the same situation as the Titanic was when it hit the iceberg, and it needs a lifebuoy. Like the mammoth Titanic, Egypt has a lot to lose if it sinks into chaos.
The writer is former corespondent of Al-Ahram in Washington, DC, and former director of the UN Radio and Television in New York.