What Next for Egypt?

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General Sisi recently announced his candidacy for President at a critical time in Egypt’s modern history. His election is a foregone conclusion. It is apt to look back at how Egypt has reached this stage and what we can learn from the last turbulent three years.

 

When the crowds at Tahrir Square demanded the removal of President Mubarak, the nation demanded change. At that time, what would happen if and when Mubarak left the presidency was uncertain. In spite of this uncertainty, euphoria swept through the crowds at Tahrir Square upon the announcement of Mubarak’s resignation. Egyptians had the uplifting and empowering hope that Egypt would progress and overcome obstacles in the way of a free, inclusive, pluralistic and prosperous society. That spirit stubbornly persevered when Morsi was elected even though the Egyptian people had every reason to be skeptical that he could steer Egypt’s transition to the society envisioned by the crowds at Tahrir. That spirit however steadily lost fervour and vitality as Egypt languished. Morsi failed to instill any confidence that he could deal with the myriad of challenges that confronted Egypt. One needs only to look at the hugely successful political satire that lampooned Morsi, El Barnameeg, to gauge Egypt’s perception of him.

That spirit of optimism was replaced with a pervading sense of disillusionment when barely a few months into his presidency, Morsi issued a stunning decree that his decisions were immune from judicial review until a new constitution was approved. Egyptians and the Egyptian diaspora had every right to be concerned about this incident, which attracted the attention of the West. A fundamental tenet of democracy, the rule of law, was attacked. The implications of this decree were stark. Morsi considered fundamental aspects of democracy to be dispensable at his choosing.(1)  This incident revealed that the visionary leader Tahrir Square crowds hoped for could not be Morsi.

As Morsi’s presidency continued, the situation in Egypt cascaded. A nation besieged by economic and social problems, weary of empty promises, and seeing the dream of Tahrir Square becoming more distant by the day demanded Morsi’s resignation in the largest documented protest in history. The manner in which Morsi was removed from power has been the subject of heated debate. Yet if we start from first principles, his fate is not nearly as controversial. Morsi’s claim to the presidency rested on the consent of the governed. That consent is not irrevocable; what the people can give, they can take back. Elections ordinarily provide the mechanism for the governed to grant or deny their consent in stable, developed and mature democracies. However, the people’s revocation of consent can be manifested and given effect to by other means, particularly in fledging democracies, as was so vividly demonstrated in Egypt. If similar circumstances arose in Western democracies the political process, which is far more developed, would appear to accommodate for the removal of leaders without the need to resort to the military.(2)  Even so, I doubt a Western leader in this day and age would assert their ‘democratic’ legitimacy based on an unconvincing electoral victory when a third of the nation in a vociferous protest demands their resignation. I can also imagine the enormous backlash if they did.

It is against this background of a failed attempt of democratic rule and an uncertain political and economic climate that we see General Sisi running for President. The turbulent whirlwinds that ensued following Morsi’s ouster indicates that what Egypt needs at present is a stabilizing figure who can restore a semblance of order and civility. Sisi is best placed for this role. He is a charismatic, strong-willed individual who enjoys the respect of the military, the popular support of Egyptians and the support of Egypt’s most authoritative religious figures, the Sheik of Al Azhar and the Pope of Alexandria.

In saying that, the promise of Tahrir Square must be realized. With the benefit of hindsight the Muslim Brotherhood and its grassroots movement were most able to take advantage of Egypt’s desire for change. Liberal constituencies were hopelessly disorganized and uncoordinated; a legacy of a Mubarak regime that stifled the development of alternatives to the ruling party. The alternative to Morsi in the 2012 elections was, regrettably, a remnant of the Mubarak regime. After his election, Morsi did not champion democracy when democratic ideals and principles did not suit him. This, along with a lack of ability to govern, led to an unprecedented protest for his resignation.

For Egypt to succeed her leaders must not suffer from the hubris that afflicted Morsi. Sisi, when elected, must be responsive to the needs and demands of the Egyptian people and must not presume he has an equivalent to a divine right to rule or he will stand on the wrong side of history, in the same vein as his predecessor. Although moving Egypt forward is complex, there are broadly three things Sisi must do, or at least attempt to do, to ensure his legacy of a man who heard the voices of Egyptian people is not tarnished.

First, he needs to ensure a return to stability and security. The recent brutal murder of Coptic Mary Sameh George (which was condemned by ACM) in violent clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Egyptian security forces and the deadly tribal clashes between Arabs and Nubians in Aswan which has left over 20 people dead are timely reminders of the uncertain and dangerous security climate that Sisi needs to tackle.

Secondly, policies of market liberalization must be actively promoted and implemented. Otherwise, the economic woes that bedeviled the Morsi presidency are unlikely to be resolved. History is replete with examples of countries prospering upon fully embracing an economic system that promotes free enterprise and rewards individual entrepreneurship and risk-taking, encourages innovation and attracts crucial foreign investment.

Thirdly, the growth and development of parties with a platform that promotes individual liberty, economic liberalization and the observance of fundamental rights must be actively encouraged and facilitated. Egypt needs a credible alternative to a strongman rule or religious parties that foment sectarianism instead of nationalistic unity. This credible alternative was sorely lacking when Mubarak resigned because Mubarak systematically dismantled such alternatives. The success of such parties is necessary for the promise of Tahrir to be realised. An education system that instills the virtues of tolerance and respect for fundamental human rights; a political system that creates a legal framework to protect those rights; a legal system that enforces those rights; a free and independent media that holds the State to account; and a culture of mutual respect between persons of diverse backgrounds are realistically unlikely to happen at the behest of a strongman. Liberal parties need to exert considerable influence in the Egyptian political process and Sisi should work with these parties to move Egypt in the direction demanded in Tahrir.

Such a society seems distant. Yet, a thousand mile journey does being with one step. It does not appear that Copts have a choice other than to have hope. One hopes Sisi will response to the urgencies of the moment and stabilize Egypt before proceeding to lay the framework for the society that is befitting of a people with a proud and rich history. Otherwise, there is every likelihood history will repeat itself, to the detriment of all concerned.

 

 

Andrew is a young professional and a proud Coptic Christian.

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(1) The Report by Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP) named 2012 the worst year for the Egyptian judiciary in six decades: http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/06/29/timeline-of-morsi-and-the-judiciary-one-year-in-power/
(2) For example, in Australia it is not difficult to envisage the passing of a no-confidence motion in the House of Representatives pursuant to which the Governor-General exercises their reserve powers to dismiss the Prime Minister.


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