Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1127, 20 - 26 December 2012

Ahram Weekly

Reflections from abroad

All eyes have been fixed on Egypt this year as the country continues its sometimes tumultuous transition, writes David Tresilian

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Events in Egypt this year have held the world’s attention as the country continues its political transition. While this befits Egypt’s importance as the largest and most-populous Arab state, playing, as the recent conflict in Gaza underlined, a key role in any wider Middle Eastern settlement, this attention has not always been unmixed with a certain amount of concern. Egypt and to a lesser extent Tunisia are the laboratories of the Arab Spring, the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011 and that are only now on their way to resolution. If things go wrong in Egypt, many foreign observers have asked, what hope for democratic transitions elsewhere?

The year started with the announcement of the results of the elections to the People’s Assembly, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) achieving a striking majority. However, just as striking were the results achieved by the Salafist Nour Party, which won some 27 per cent of the vote. While the Brotherhood and FJP’s electoral showing had not been unexpected, the Brotherhood having already established itself as one of the main beneficiaries of the 25 January Revolution, the Salafist results surprised some domestic and many foreign observers.

They also underlined concerns, emerging since the overthrow of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak at the beginning of 2011, that the Egyptian revolution, initially led by a coalition of youthful revolutionary groups and opposition movements, could now be taking on a more monolithic and Islamist character. If the first free and fair elections since the revolution had yielded so large a majority for the Islamist forces, such that they had achieved a near-absolute control of the parliament, what would take place when it came to the planned presidential elections?

It was not long before the results of these were known, following the first and second rounds held in May and June, with the FJP and Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi being declared Egypt’s first freely elected president on 24 June, the first Islamist to become the head of state of any Arab country. Morsi’s victory came at the end of a long and sometimes bitter electoral process, with the Brotherhood’s preferred candidate, Khairat Al-Shater, notably being forced to withdraw on procedural grounds and defeats being handed out to other candidates who had nonetheless done well in the opinion polls, such as former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa.

However, long before Morsi’s narrow election victory — he beat competing candidate Ahmed Shafik, a minister in the Mubarak-era governments, by only a couple of percentage points in the second-round vote — there were also signs that the orderly character of Egypt’s democratic transition was coming under pressure from sometimes violent elements, heightening foreign and domestic fears that the process could be in danger of slipping out of constitutional control. The overthrow of Mubarak, though largely peaceful and coming at the end of 18 days of mass demonstrations, had not been free of violence, and this escalated later in 2011, notably in October when demonstrators outside the State Television building in Cairo were attacked, leaving several dozen people dead and hundreds injured.

Fighting broke out in the early months of 2012 between protesters wanting an end to the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military council that had taken on responsibility for ruling the country following the collapse of the Mubarak regime and during the early stages of the political transition, and unknown assailants. Low-level violence continued over the early spring and summer months, sometimes erupting into more serious outbreaks, such as the still largely unexplained events in Port Said in February, when upwards of 70 people were killed, many of them adolescents, during fighting at a football match, or the clashes that took place outside the Defence Ministry in Cairo in April.

Downtown streets off Cairo’s Tahrir Square became the theatre for regular outbreaks of violence, Mohamed Mahmoud Street in particular being associated with the clashes that had claimed the lives of an estimated 40 people in November 2011. For foreign observers, already concerned at the path the transition seemed to be taking, this backdrop of violence seemed to confirm that the pressures of the revolution were not being appropriately managed. Television pictures from Cairo showing downtown streets taken over by violence, or news of the tragedies in Port Said or earlier at Maspero in Cairo, also had predictable effects on outside confidence in the Egyptian economy and foreign visitor numbers.

All this was leading to gloomy outside perceptions by the middle of the year of a country being overtaken by ongoing political and economic crisis. The indicators of the latter do not make pleasant reading, with tourism receipts down perhaps by a half of what they were before the 25 January Revolution, rising unemployment, a falling Egyptian pound and increasing balance of payments problems connected to rising commodity prices. When linked to perceptions that the early hopes of the revolution had not necessarily been built upon, many Western commentators fell back on the now hackneyed thought that the Arab Spring might be giving way to an Arab Winter.

 

MORSI’S PRESIDENCY: The election of Morsi as Egyptian head of state in June was met with much anticipation and curiosity by foreign observers. Not only was Morsi, an Islamist, the first freely elected president in Egypt’s history, but he and his party would also bear the responsibility for steering the country towards a functioning democracy.

How far would Morsi, a member of a religious grouping banned from participating in the mainstream political process under the previous Mubarak regime, be able to establish consensus among Egypt’s different political and other groupings? How far would an Islamist presidential election victory lead to strategic realignments in foreign as much as in domestic policy?

Morsi’s tenure began with clashes between the new president and the SCAF and the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) that in retrospect might be considered to be signs of what was to come. Prior to the second round of the presidential elections, the SCAF had dissolved the parliament and issued a constitutional declaration setting limits on the powers of the newly elected president. After the elections, Morsi declared that he would reconvene the dissolved parliament and that a constituent assembly drawn from its ranks would be tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution, decisions that brought him into conflict with the SCC which ruled that reconvening the parliament would be unconstitutional.

In August, Morsi moved against the now former ruling SCAF in actions that impressed, or alarmed, foreign as well as domestic observers. Following an outbreak of violence in Sinai, one of several that punctuated the year, Morsi retired Hussein Tantawi, the head of the country’s Armed Forces and former chairman of the SCAF, and Sami Anan, the army chief of staff. At the same time, he annulled the earlier constitutional declaration restricting the president’s powers. Since the country had no parliament or functioning post-revolutionary constitution, Morsi had already accrued de facto legislative as well as executive powers and he now also exerted his authority over Egypt’s Armed Forces.

The move brought him up against the courts and particularly the SCC as the guardian of the constitutional order, and suspicions that the president and ruling FJP were attempting to gather all branches of government under Brotherhood auspices and “Islamise” Egyptian state and society began to spread both at home and abroad. Such suspicions continued to grow later in the year, when a new word, ikhwanisation (Brotherhoodisation), entered the political vocabulary of foreign and domestic commentators. While Morsi was obliged to respect the SCC decision to dissolve the People’s Assembly, the threat of judicial review also hanging over the Islamist-majority Constituent Assembly, he moved in October to retire the country’s prosecutor-general, Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud, possibly in response to pressures to speed up the prosecution of members of the former Mubarak regime.

This move, on this occasion not successful, once again brought Morsi into conflict with the judiciary and gave rise to popular demonstrations both for and against it. Foreign commentators were at once alarmed and impressed at the speed with which Morsi, elected some months earlier against a background of concerns that the SCAF, then appearing confident in its grip on power, would attempt to prevent the election of an Islamist president by rigging the elections, had moved to consolidate his control of the country’s institutions.

Writing in the New York Review of Books in 8 November, for example, respected commentators Hussein Agha and Robert Malley wrote of the “speed and elegance with which the new president, Mohamed Morsi, retired or sidelined the old military leadership and the quiet with which this daring move was greeted.” According to Agha and Malley, commenting in the course of a somewhat disenchanted article entitled “This is not a Revolution”, the Brotherhood had by now abandoned the hopes of the 25 January Revolution in what had become a sometimes veiled, sometimes naked quest for power.

“It’s a game of musical chairs. The Salafis play the part once played by the Muslim Brotherhood; the Brotherhood plays the part once played by the Mubarak regime… Egyptian politics are wedged between the triumphant mainstream Muslim Brotherhood, more hardline Salafis, anxious non-Islamists, and remnants of the old order,” they wrote.

It was against this background of heightened concerns at Brotherhood intentions, perceptions of the growing polarisation of Egyptian politics and the possibility that there could be an increase in already high levels of tension that Morsi’s 22 November constitutional declaration was greeted by many Western commentators. This declaration, later in part rescinded, seeking to remove the SCC’s powers of judicial review and to protect the work of the Islamist-dominated assembly, appeared to be in line with previous moves on Morsi’s part, and it added to concerns that consensus and democracy were not on the Egyptian president’s agenda. The New York Times warned in an editorial in December that “the revolution in Egypt is in danger of being lost in a spasm of violence, power grabs and bad judgements.”

Morsi had attempted to justify his confrontation with the judiciary on the grounds that “a Mubarak-appointed court” had to be prevented from “dissolving the assembly and thwarting the democratic transition”, the newspaper said, but there were also worries about his own democratic credentials. “Morsi should have worked much harder to bring opposition figures into his government, ensure the Constituent Assembly was fully representative and that there was broad consensus for the constitution” before setting a date for a public referendum on it.

 

RETROSPECT AND PROSPECT: As commentators looked back over the course of a year that had begun with the first post-Mubarak parliament and had seen the election of the country’s first Islamist president in June the mood was a sombre one.

Opening its pages to the opposition, the London Financial Times carried a lengthy article by head of the Constitution Party Mohamed Al-Baradei, now also coordinator of the National Salvation Front of anti-Brotherhood forces, in which he reviewed events in Egypt since Morsi’s election and concluded that the “economy is in free-fall… Northern Sinai is turning into a battleground… And now, with the uproar over the draft constitution [and the constitutional declaration], the country is dangerously polarised.”

Egypt, Al-Baradei wrote, with Tunisia the country most associated with the democratic hopes of the Arab Spring, had apparently ended 2012 with “a president claiming dictatorial powers, a parliament packed with Islamists, and a draft constitution hastily cobbled together without basic protections for women, Christians and all Egyptians”. After 23 months of struggling for democracy, he asked, “is this the best we can do?”

As 2012 draws to a close, a year that has seen events in Egypt occupy a major place on the world’s front pages, many question marks remain over the country’s transition. Is Egypt on its way towards a presidential system close to that of the French Fifth Republic, asked the French newspaper Le Monde in its analysis of the draft constitution on 5 December. Or should the latter be seen in a more sinister light, as unbefitting a democracy and leading the country into “uncharted waters” in the words of Al-Baradei in the Financial Times one day before?

 

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