Nearly three months after the fall of Mubarak, Egypt remains in a state of crisis. A newly emerged, de facto political alliance between the governing Army Council and the Muslim Brotherhood is posing a dire threat to the youthful forces of secular, democratic pluralism, in which so many Western hopes had been invested.
Western commentators ponder historical parallels. Is Egypt now like some Eastern European country in 1989, still suffering the inevitable birth pangs of an emerging pluralist democracy as it throws off the shackles of tyranny? Or are we seeing a repeat of the European 1848 ‘springtime of the nations’, fated to be snuffed out amid bitter disappointment?
A more frightening but apt comparison is Egypt itself in the fateful year of 1952. In that year, a political crisis in the old Egyptian constitutional order, accompanied by massive civil disturbances, led to intervention by the Army on a ‘temporary’ basis to restore stability. The military regime established in 1952 has ruled Egypt ever since
This year offers numerous parallels with 1952. In both years, the interim Army council is led by a respected if rather colourless senior military officer. (Then, it was Mohammed Neguib; today, Mohammed Tantawi.) In both years the Army council promises to hold parliamentary elections within six months, and to withdraw from the political scene upon the election of a new government. In both years the country is administered in the meantime by an Army-appointed civilian administration headed by a well-known, respected politician holding the title of prime minister.
The disturbing part is that in 1952, every one of these developments was part of an elaborate facade. The facade was only gradually dismantled – it would be two years before Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, the real coup leader all along, would step into the full light of day as the new power in the land.
In 1952 the forces of parliamentary democracy and secularised civil society had been well-established for 30 years. It took Nasser months of careful plotting to out-manoeuvre and finally crush them. Today, after 60 years of oppression, those forces are struggling even to find a place to stand in the politics of the ‘new’ Egypt. They are proving much more easy to dispose of.
In the immediate wake of Mubarak’s fall, hopes were high that the thousands of young, liberal-minded Egyptians who had emerged to demonstrate against him in Cairo’s Tahrir Square would form the core of new parties that would take the lead in a reformed, democratic Egypt. But the machinations of the ruling military council, Nasser’s political descendants, are ensuring that no new groups will hold significant power in post-Mubarak Egypt.
As widely reported, the timing of parliamentary elections for September this year, as approved in a carefully managed recent referendum, will leave any new parties insufficient time to properly organize. On top of that, in the last week of March the Army has announced extremely onerous requirements for the registration of any new political parties.
The upshot is that the dominant forces in the ‘new Egypt’ will be the Army itself and the equally old-established Muslim Brotherhood. The old Mubarak party machine, which in the old regime ruled Egypt in alliance with the Army, still pervades government bureaucracies and will also remain influential.
The emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood (technically illegal under Mubarak) as a fully-fledged political player is in line with the changed position of the United States, which has direct relations with the Army. The US provided Egypt under Mubarak with aid of around $1.3 billion a year – principally military aid for the Army – on the tacit understanding that the regime would continue to keep the Brotherhood away from the levers of power.
That position however has undergone a radical shift. After many years of assiduous lobbying of US officials and Washington foreign policy wonks by Brotherhood representatives, President Obama now says that the Egyptian Islamists should have a ‘seat at the table’ of power in Egypt. The Egyptian army has taken him at his word. The army’s management of arrangements for forthcoming national elections more or less guarantees a powerful position for the Brotherhood in the new parliament. It is the new groups that were so prominent in the Tahrir Square demonstrations after January 25 which will be left out in the cold.
The parliament elected in September will be responsible for drafting a new constitution for the country. A strong Brotherhood presence will produce a constitution based on an even bigger role than at present for sharia – Islamic law.
Needless to say, this is extremely bad news for all non-Islamist and minority groups, including Egypt’s indigenous Coptic Christians (about 10 per cent of the population), human rights activists, writers, intellectuals, and so on. And of course for women.