« Previous | Main | Next »

Egypt: one short year

Post categories:

Robin Lustig | 09:08 UK time, Friday, 13 January 2012

A year is a very short time in revolutionary politics, so if anyone asks you, a year after the Egyptian revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, what the future holds in store for this country, you can confidently reply: "It's much too soon to tell."

Yes, the old dictatorship has gone, but the military are still in control, and democracy has not yet taken hold.

Yes, elections have taken place, but they were to choose members of a new parliament whose powers have yet to be defined.

And yes, there's now a freedom of expression and a freedom to protest unlike anything that Egypt has seen in decades -- but dissidents are still being thrown in jail and thousands of civilians are being tried in military courts.

The big story from the elections is that the religious, Islamist parties have swept the board. As I write, the final results after a six-week election period have not yet been published -- but in broad terms it looks as if the Freedom and Justice party, representing the Muslim Brotherhood, have won 40-45 per cent of the vote, and the al-Nour party, representing the ultra-conservative Salafis who practise an unusually strict form of Islam, have won between 20 and 25 per cent.

That's enough to worry a lot of secular liberals who have nightmares about Egypt turning into another Iran. Stories have already started circulating of Salafi-inspired "morality police" being issued with wooden batons with which to discipline citizens who are considered to be inappropriately dressed.

But until a new constitution has been drawn up, no one can be sure just how much power these new MPs will have. One leading presidential candidate, the former foreign minister Amre Moussa, told me he favours a "French-style" presidency; the Islamist parties, on the other hand, would rather have a more powerful parliament and a less powerful president. (You can hear the interview tonight, Friday, or online or as a podcast.)

As for the military, they're keeping their counsel these days, after being roundly criticised for suggesting that they expected to play a major role in the drafting of a new constitution. The assumption is that whoever is elected president later this year will need to have at least the tacit support of the Muslim Brotherhood, without whom he probably couldn't win, and of the military, without whom he couldn't govern.

Here's an anecdote from the streets of Cairo, a vignette to illustrate how different the new Egypt is from the old one. A few nights ago, we stumbled across a noisy demonstration, a few hundred students chanting slogans against the military council. We decided to record it; after all, you can never tell when these things might come in useful.

Within moments, having seen our microphone, an angry and smartly-dressed middle-aged man was berating us, in fluent English, about the idiocy of the protesters. Why didn't they just go home and leave the military to get on with running the country?

Moments later, a second man joined in, again in fluent English, taking the opposite point of view. Tempers rose, and a crowd soon gathered. But there was no trouble, and as soon as we put the microphone away, the crowd drifted off.

Democracy in action? Not quite, perhaps. But in the Egypt that I used to know, a microphone in the street would have been regarded with deep suspicion. No one would have chanted opposition slogans, or voiced political opinions for all to hear.

Egypt is one of the most influential nations in the Arab world, even if it can't afford to buy the sort of influence that countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar enjoy. The population of Cairo alone is greater than the combined populations of Libya, Lebanon and Jordan.

That means that what happens here will matter far beyond Egypt's shores. A smooth transition to a genuine democracy would be a powerful example in one of the world's least stable regions.


  • Comment number 1.

    Same interview could have happened in the 1640's talking to Cavaliers and Roundheads. Democracy takes a generation. Media lacks patience..deadlines, you understand.

  • Comment number 2.

    Re: Freedom and Justice & al-Nour parties:

    Having been voted in, would they allow themselves to be voted out?

    "It's much too soon to tell."

    People being permitted to voice differing opinions is a good sign. Long may it continue.

  • Comment number 3.

    To fetishise western democracy as in some way an ideal is naïve. What matters is well expressed in the ideals of revolutionary France liberté, égalité et fraternité. Being free from unjust oppression, having the same rights under the law (and the same duties) and a feeling of brotherhood and mutual support for and by ones neighbours.

    We in the west are in by no means ideal societies - there is increasing unfairness all around with the rich and well connected sucking up the wealth of the poor. However we do have constitutions that purport to provide equality under the law. Getting from an autocratic dictatorship to something approaching the French ideal takes time (or even the British revolutionary ideal!)

    But what is certainly wrong is the imposition of one way of achieving greater equality. The key is to work towards the abolition of corruption and selfishness in every society. The abolition of Clarksonism in every aspect of life!

    The question always arises as the purpose of the revolutionary elite. One answer has to be the negative - that is what they should hot achieve. They should not work towards dynastic quasi-regal dominance by the new elite - if this is the outcome then they have failed.

    The rich and wealthy have to be constrained by law and in fact or corruption take over to the exclusion of all other aspects of life. This requires and independent judiciary and equal access to law. The police and investigating authorities my also be free from corruption and one focused upon the fairness agenda.

    I'll stop now as thousands of books and learned treatises have been written on the subject over the years.

    In essence all administrations can be judged by the very simple measures of fairness - is the society fairer after their term in office than it was before - if not they are a failure.

    It is as yet impossible to reasonable conclude anything about the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, Egypt. But the mode of assessment I suggest above works for all countries and all administrations.

    They are good if the society is fairer afterwards and vice versa!

  • Comment number 4.

    Egypt's military rulers are still hoping parliamentary elections will help them regain the upper hand, by co-opting Islamist & liberal parties & isolating militants.
    Large numbers of people who greeted the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as heroes for ousting Mubarak in February now see SCAF as a counterrevolutionary force.
    The protests won a series of concessions, including the resignation of an unpopular civilian cabinet that provided a fig leaf for military rule. But as a replacement, the army appointed as PM (former Mubarak supporter) Kamel el-Ganzoury.
    The military dug in to hold onto power by proposing a new constitution that would put the armed forces above civilian authorities.
    New demonstrations followed. The turnout was massive. The square was really roaring with chants against SCAF & against its head, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. The consensus in the square was that a presidential council or a salvation cabinet must take power, made up of independent people who have absolutely nothing to do with Mubarak or National Democratic Party (ruled under Mubarak's regime).
    So, to date, Egyptian Green Spring has yet to spring.

  • Comment number 5.

    The ongoing demonstrations put pressure on a few liberal figures to put themselves forward as being ready to form national unity government or national salvation cabinet. Mohamed ElBaradei, a key liberal figure, agreed to cancel his presidential bid if he were asked to form a national unity government that would include liberals, Nasserists & moderate Islamists.
    That's generally what happened out of the big demonstration in Tahrir. But there were other demonstrations in other parts of the country on the same day. The new development is that there are also demonstrations in Upper Egypt which is considered more backward, less industrialized. It wasn't fully a part of the January uprising. So this is a new development. It is slowly catching up with the revolution.
    ARE WORKING-class and economic demands coming to the fore in these demonstrations, or are they focused more on getting the military out of politics?
    THE POLITICAL and the economic are completely intertwined. There is a general unifying demand among the million people in Tahrir that the SCAF must go. But the underlying reason is that the economic situation has deteriorated in the last several months. Many people tell reporters that life is getting harder, that unemployment is unbearable, and that the previous government failed to improve their lives. The SCAF has failed miserably on this. So the anger over economic hardship and the yearning for political freedom are inter-connected.

  • Comment number 6.

    SCAF is the continuation of the Mubarak regime. Egyptians are beginning to understand connection between political & economic issues. They are beginning to grapple with the role of police in society. And they are the ones who understand that the ruling class played a trick on them by using Mubarak as a scapegoat in order to save the rest of the political system.
    People are more hesitant about the power SCAF.
    On a different level, it was much easier for the ruling class to get rid of Mubarak. Getting rid of the SCAF, or pushing it back to the barracks, is a much harder task. Many people outside of Tahrir also want the SCAF to go back to its barracks, but they don't think there is the organization on the ground to win something like that.
    Majority of people believe that elections will be the way to establish a civilian government and to get the army out of political life. There is a majority consensus on this, other than a crazy right-wing minority that wants the SCAF to stay in power.
    The majority of the country wants a democratic system. They want a civilian government. They want to be able to vote and to exercise political control over their lives. And they believe this is the way to get the army out of their lives for the first time in 60 years.
    In new constitution, the Brotherhood says it will not implement Sharia law. But its version of Sharia is different from the Salafists, who have a very reactionary view against women and Coptic Christians, and for carrying out the most brutal punishment for those who break the law. The Muslim Brotherhood's views are a lot closer to their Turkish counterparts. So there are divisions between Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood. A very popular Salafist presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, has a following of millions. So a group of Salafists are attempting to outflank the Muslim Brotherhood.
    In Egypt the Green spring has not sprung.

  • Comment number 7.

    What's happening in Egypt, is a good lesson for Nigerians as we seek radical change through our current protests. Hopefully, we will not fall prey to a military intervention that takes us for granted as much as the corrupt politicians currently do.

  • Comment number 8.

    I maybe an optimist in believing that the votes for the Islamic parties are in part a protest against the pro-West & pro-Israel Egyptian elite. This may be a case of the Egyptian Will flexing its muscles.

    On the other hand it is an immature democracy with a lack of proper political parties. This may make ideal conditions for a new dictatorship to take over. From what I have been reading and seeing on TV I get the impression that the Egyptians are too 'revolutionary democratised' (for what of a better phrase) for this to happen.

    As AJ Muste once implied, when the populous is revolutionary, it doesn't need violence to take power - the point is to transcend the violence that was used by the regime and to prove that violence does not pay. Peace is permanence.


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.