Linda S Heard
Protest has become a way of life for many Egyptians all over the country. Everyone seems to have a gripe; everyone is aware that something is rotten in the state of Egypt but there’s little consensus on how to put things right. Scenes of angry demonstrators firing buildings and choking under clouds of teargas has become routine television watching, so much so that most café patrons simply glance at the screen and sigh before resuming their conversations or a game of dominoes. On Friday, a court ruling confirming sentencing for those involved in a riot last year during a football match between Cairo’s Al Ahly and Port Said’s Masry club that robbed 74 fans (most Al Ahly supporters) of their lives pleased no one. Port Said residents consider the sentences of their guys - ranging from death to 15 years in prison, too severe - and thousands took their ire to the streets, while others tried to disrupt the Suez Canal by untying speed boats and throwing burning tyres into the water. A large banner erected over the port’s entrance called for the city’s secession from Egypt, echoing an action taken by the city of Mahalla which declared its independence last year. Last week, the Interior Ministry withdrew its police forces from Port Said in the hope of calming tensions eliciting celebrations. Ostensibly, the army now has control of the city except the military is eschewing policing duties announcing it is only responsible for protecting state buildings and the canal.
Initially, Al Ahly supporters were pleased with the sentences; that was until it sank in that several policemen alleged to have stood-by watching the killings were off the hook. Thousands of the club’s hard line fans known as Ahlawy Ultras vented their fury at the acquittals by torching a police club and setting the country’s football association headquarters on fire after stealing trophies and destroying documents enshrining Egypt’s football history that, according to officials, is now lost forever. Other fans disrupted train services between Cairo and Alexandria. “The President and the government are both directly responsible for turning the country’s political fire into a real fire,” read a statement from the leader of the Liberal Free Egyptians Party.
The general mood is one of helplessness and anxiety. It’s evident that a government overwhelmed by violent opposition and a security apparatus that’s breaking apart - over 30 police stations around the country are on strike - has lost direction and control, so much so that an increasing number of people are nostalgic for “the good old days” when Mubarak was at the helm. Placards asking Mubarak, who’s ailing and behind bars, for forgiveness are commonly seen.
Many more are calling upon the military to step-in and to prove their seriousness, are signing personal powers of attorney in the name of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces; ironic when just months ago, the thought of a military coup was anathema for almost everyone. President Mohammad Mursi is in a quandary. An authoritarian approach only incites increased rage in a nation that suffered for over 30 years under a virtual dictatorship. On the other hand, a laissez-faire policy is bringing the country to its economic knees.
Instability has Egypt’s regional friends with fat pockets backing-off; investment has dried up along with tourism. The Egyptian pound is bleeding against the dollar resulting in a 15 per cent price hike on foodstuffs, medicines and other goods and as the foreign currency reserve dwindles, the situation is likely to worsen. The government’s attempt to raise income, property and sales taxes in accordance with IMF conditions associated with a $4.8 billion loan is severely impacting the poor in a country where an estimated 50 million subsist below the poverty line. A revolution of the hungry seems inevitable unless the status quo undergoes dramatic change.
Democracy isn’t doing too well either. A court has suspended parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on April 22 on the grounds that electoral law, which the opposition alleged favoured Islamists, must first be reviewed by the Constitutional Court. In any event, most opposition parties, including those under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front headed by Mohammad Al Baradei, Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi, vowed to boycott that ballot.
It’s beyond time that Mursi stopped fiddling while his country burns and learned that denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. With all the good intentions in the world, he can’t save his country from chaos and bankruptcy without the help of the opposition. Because of his Muslim Brotherhood affiliations he cannot be the unifier the nation needs more than anything else at this juncture in its history. His insistence that he was brought to office on the ballot box will no longer wash when so many Egyptians no longer have faith in that box in the knowledge that the Brotherhood has been selling meat at vastly reduced prices or giving it away in the poorest areas in the run-up to April’s (now defunct) parliamentary elections. Is this social welfare or vote-buying?
A national unity government representing all sides of the political and religious spectrum and made up of veteran politicians and technocrats is the only sensible way forward. Mursi must admit that he can’t do it alone and reach out to the opposition. As Henry Ford is quoted as saying, “Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently”.