The following article was published today in the Times, and can be read on their site here.
In Egypt, there is no Aung San Suu Kyi. The liberal youth who won our hearts with their mass demonstrations for freedom in Tahrir Square have, for the time being, at least, lost. In February 2011, they overthrew the Mubarak regime. The old pharaoh himself might be near death, but his successors are anything but. Nearly 18 months later the exhausted and leaderless revolutionary youth seem powerless to stop the old regime from reasserting itself.
The military junta’s dissolution of the elected Parliament last week and its unilateral amendment of the constitution to stop the new President from exercising real power have been a catastrophe for this developing democracy. But the world merely watches without outrage: there have been no condemnations from EU governments or the US. The audacity of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, the stench of the sewage and piled-up waste in Old Cairo, once a cradle of Muslim civilisation, serves as a daily reminder to millions of Egyptians about the decay of their country. It was physical deterioration — the overcrowding, the lack of decent jobs, the hard-pressed schools and hospitals — that led Egyptians to lose their fear of the Government, and chant “hurriya, karama, adala ijtemaya” (“freedom, dignity and social justice”) night after night in Tahrir Square.
Scaf’s manoeuvrings are an insult to the very freedom, dignity and justice that the masses sought. This week, the military prevented several MPs from entering the parliament building. Barbed wire now surrounds it, and soldiers are stationed there to prevent future attempts to gather. In response, the MPs have vowed to convene Parliament in Tahrir Square.
Today we are due to learn whether Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, or Ahmed Shafiq, a military man and former Prime Minister, won the presidential election when the official results are announced by the electoral oversight committee. Shafiq sees Morsi as an Islamist who wishes to impose theocracy on Egypt; Morsi views Shafiq as a Mubarak throwback who will return the country to secular dictatorship. In reality, neither would be a dictator or a theocrat — they wouldn’t have the powers under Scaf.
Not content with dissolving Parliament, Scaf has stripped the presidency of powers as basic as representing Egypt abroad. Morsi or Shafiq will arrive at the presidential palace with effectively no parliament, and no constitution. Whoever has won will be a mere rubber stamp. It is already clear that Scaf is the real winner of the elections.
Worse still, the chief adviser to Scaf has declared that the President will be there “for a short period of time, whether or not he agrees. A new constitution will require a new president”. Without elected politicians, it now seems that Scaf and its chosen few will write the constitution, too.
Egypt is not a country with a military, but a military with a country. Since the army coup of 1954, the Armed Forces have grown to be a powerful force in Egypt’s economy, controlling 40 per cent of it, from real estate to bottling mineral water. The 20 men in their fifties and sixties who make up Scaf are not about to lose all their privileges because a group of Westernised liberals revolted in Tahrir Square.
Although the liberal revolutionaries might not have gained what they wanted quite yet, the old fear of the military regime is no more. Sure, no institutional advances have been made, but the revolution changed Egypt for ever. Today, Egyptians can talk about politics and not be fearful of arrest. They have secured the freedom to assemble, have made advances in freeing up the press and put the need for democracy at the forefront of Arab politics. But the revolutionaries’ lack of leadership and organisation means that they will not secure their full aims any time soon.
Scaf, meanwhile, has in its meddling put itself on a direct collision with Egypt’s revolution. The stage is set for more confrontations and violent showdowns with a different group. The Twitter and Facebook activists who led the first uprisings are now exhausted from fighting five rounds of elections and the daily tense standoff. This time the struggle for power is more likely to be between the two constants of Egyptian politics — the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, who have been active and organising since 1928.
“The coming revolution may be less peaceful and more violent,” warned the Brotherhood’s deputy leader and main strategist, Khairat al-Shater. “It may be difficult to control the streets. Some parties, not the Muslim Brotherhood, may resort to further violence and extremism. When people find that the door to peaceful change is closed, it is an invitation to violence.” This is typical of the Brotherhood: raise the temperature, expect and justify violence, but claim not to be a direct part of it.
In my meetings with the Brotherhood’s leaders, they provide convincing reassurances of their motives. The priorities, they say, are jobs, houses and development, not enforcing Sharia. They support a free market, will uphold the peace treaty with Israel and want strong relations with the West, they claim. The leadership’s stated direction of travel is sensible. But the Brotherhood’s grassroots, especially in rural areas, remain religious conservatives with Islamist supremacist tendencies.
But maybe there won’t be a new revolution: many Egyptians are weary of revolutionary talk. When I visited Egypt last year, the f-word was spat from people’s lips. To be accused of being felool — a “remnant” of the old regime — was to risk being lynched. On my return a few weeks ago, being felool was a statement of pride for many. There are plenty who are tired of protests; they want the tourists back, the traffic to flow through town centres free of protesters, and the old “stability” to return. Even according to the Muslim Brotherhood’s exit polls 48 per cent backed that remnant, Shafiq.
One thing is certain, Egypt will be in a quagmire for the foreseeable future as democracy cannot be entrenched overnight. In the absence of an Egyptian Aung San Suu Kyi, the old men of Scaf will have to decide the near future’s course: they can choose to enter the 21st century, and be remembered by history for doing the right thing. Or the junta can be damned by posterity for killing its own children as they return to Tahrir Square to revolt.