Egypt lies at the heart of the Arab world and is widely acknowledged as trendsetter in that region. With the highest population amongst Arab League nations, a large professional army and civilisation dating back thousands of years, Egypt wields considerable political clout in the Arab world. It dominated the Arab film industry, intellectual movements and media till the advent of satellite channels. Naturally, the revolution that began in the Tahrir Square last year had a demonstration effect in several Arab nations. Unfortunately, the dreams that accompanied the Tahrir Square phenomenon were short-lived.
The results of parliamentary elections held some months ago came as a shock to the liberal youth. Two parties supported by the Ikhwan and Salafis had bagged more than 50 percent seats. Liberals got only about 18 percent of the votes cast. The Egyptians have a good sense of humour. When asked for the reasons of their debacle in the parliamentary elections, the liberals said that the Islamists had been preparing for the elections for 80 years, while they got only eight months!
It is true that the Ikhwan, often banned or persecuted, had been helping the marginalised sections of society through an informal social security network. They cultivated their social, political and religious links through prayer congregations. The Ikhwan have politically matured over the years and were now looking for a moderate system based on the Turkish model. However, the rise of Salafis, who had appeared on the political scene for the first time with 20 percent vote, was a surprise development.
The religious-secular divide is quite deeply rooted in Egypt. The military establishment and the judiciary have emerged as guardians of the old system abhorred by the liberal youth. But more than the liberal youth, they also perceive the rising religious parties as a threat to their vested interests. Secular vote in Egypt is still more than the Islamist vote, according to the first round of presidential elections. Liberal candidates Ahmad Shafik, Hamdeen Sabahi and Ammre Mousa polled more votes than Mohammad Mursi and Abdul Monem Abul Fatooh combined. The liberal problem was that their vote got divided. Tahrir Square crowd had never dreamt that their uprising against Mubarak’s dictatorial rule would actually benefit the Islamist parties. This proved yet again that in politics organised political work at the grassroots level is more important than mere raising of slogans for change.
The unorganised liberals got frustrated and expressed their frustration by withdrawing into their shell. If we study the percentage of votes cast in three rounds of the elections held so far, a declining interest in the political process at the popular level is discernible. The people of Egypt appear to be losing their hope in democracy as a panacea of their problems. They can peep into the future and see that a powerful Ikhwan presence in the government can lead to tensions with the bastions of old guard. Powerful corporate interests and influential Christian minority are clearly with the old guard, as they prefer stability over political experimentation.
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has already issued an interim Constitution. It has also arrogated to itself the right to nominate a body of hundred eminent persons to write the new Constitution. The situation seems similar to Pakistan in early 1960s when Ayub Khan, who abhorred independent minded politicians in general and Jamaat-i-Islami in particular, had ordered a Constitution tailor made to his requirements. The superior Egyptian judiciary has abrogated the newly-elected Parliament before it could become functional. The SCAF wants that the Defence Ministry should have immunity from civilian oversight. It also wants that certain aspects of the foreign policy, relations with the United States in particular, should not be controlled by the newly-elected President.
Egypt stands today where Algeria was in 1991. The Islamists have won, but are being denied real power. The military establishment thinks that it has the sole right of defining the national interest and protecting it. The prime US goal in Egypt is that the Camp David Accord should not be questioned or reopened. It also wants a stable Egyptian-Israeli border. Only the Egyptian military establishment could give that guarantee. While singing odes to the evolving democracy in Egypt, the United States also issued the necessary certification last March for resuming $1.3 billion worth of annual US assistance to Cairo, after a hiatus of five months. And this was done while emergency imposed by the ruling generals was still on. This is a truly duplicitous policy. Encouraged by this, the generals have re-imposed martial law last week.
It is a pity that the country that could have played a leading role in the new Arab renaissance is so divided and polarised itself. I lived in Cairo for a year way back in 1974 to learn Arabic and visited it again in 1999 and 2004. It used to be one of the most peaceful cities of the world. Today, I learn with great anguish, that people are being kidnapped there, for ransom. This is unbelievable. A vast majority of the Egyptians do not want to return to the old dictatorial rule, but transition to democracy has had its own pitfalls. The Egyptian military brass should know that ignoring popular mandate could bring in its wake bigger problems as we saw in Algeria.
The biggest fear in the land of Pharaohs’ is that instead of being transformed to the Turkish model, it may not end up becoming another Pakistan.
n The writer is a former ambassador and a freelance analyst with Arabic satellite channels.