Saturday, 6 July 2013

Egypt’s present struggle in context

Mass demonstrations of supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi occurred in several Egyptian cities on July 5, AFP reported. Thousands rallied in the northern cities of Alexandria, Beherira and Minya following Friday afternoon prayers. Meanwhile, in Cairo, thousands marched in Giza, Abbasiya and Heliopolis. Thousands more continued a sit-in in the Cairo district of Nasr City. Eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood will try to revive itself by re-assimilating into Egypt's political institutions, though it is in no hurry to attempt to reclaim the presidency.

To understand Egypt’s trouble, it pays to frame the protests and recent ouster in the background of the past few years. Essentially, the Egyptian military has been in control of Egypt since 1952 and even today has not lost any of that power. During the unrest in 2011, at the beginning of the period known as the Arab Spring, Egyptians removed the military’s civilian partner - the head of state Hosni Mubarak - and began the process of what has become a wildly gyrating political rollercoaster.

The Egyptian military, it was explained on this site at the time, used demonstrations in Cairo as a smokescreen to force Mr Mubarak from his position after the aging leader’s plans for his son to replace him displeased the generals. Mr Mubarak’s son was unconnected to the military and the threat of reforms on the armed forces was believed to be high. In response, the military stoked social tensions which were already bubbling to the surface in Egypt and encouraged local television media and international media to display large protests calling for Mr Mubarak’s removal.
The military retained control of much of the judicial system and rotated the faces in high positions with more of their own officers. But the military’s civilian partner, in the form of Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, suddenly fell away causing a major dilemma for the military. A military council known as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) was appointed as an interim government in Egypt after the pressure on Mr Mubarak became too great. This was further exacerbated with a multi-party era when elections were promised for the demonstrators. These were held close to a year ago in 2012, and the demonstrations cooled down significantly.  

The elections eventually conducted were relatively free and fair, and the long-existing but marginalised Muslim Brotherhood (MB) successfully fielded Mr Morsi as a candidate and took power. The MB are the most coherent and long-lasting political force in Egypt aside from the military. However, the new democratic system was not a full package of power despite what many observers in the international community first thought. The actual control Mr Morsi had over Egyptian politics and the judicial structure was extremely constrained by what the military wanted. The generals in the SCAF held on to the true reins of power and a de facto balance was agreed upon with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This balance did not include the power for Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to create and enforce structural changes to the Egyptian political system. Mr Morsi’s government has since struggled to bring real momentum to getting Egypt’s economy back on track and attract historical support from the United States and the International Monetary Fund for the fiscal aid it desperately needs. A mix of increasingly unpopular Islamist policies and a political deadlock between the SCAF and MB has drastically spiralled Egyptian standards of living even lower. The demonstrations over the first week of July are a result of Egypt’s internal political struggle and seemingly impenetrable obstacles in balancing the military’s control with popularly-supported democratic revolution.

Ultimately, the situation in Egypt has not changed very much since even before the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The military regime controlled Egypt before the first protests and still holds onto power today. At the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the demonstrations were directed against the generals in power with the express purpose to usher in a more popularly-controlled government. Many of the interviewed protestors during the initial demonstrations to remove Mr Mubarak spoke English, because these people could be understood easily by those viewing the reports in Western countries. Their narrative seemed to suggest a liberal, Western-style, secular democracy was preferred. However, the deeper consciousness of Egypt awoke during the elections when an Islamist government was voted in instead. In hindsight, the thought that a secular democracy could suddenly spring in a country with a long history of authoritarian rule was clearly fanciful.

In the recent demonstrations, there seems to be a lot of popular support for the removal of Mr Morsi. Much of the blame for the past year’s economic and social ills has been deftly lumped on Mr Morsi’s government by the SCAF. Because of the narrative the military created during Mr Mubarak’s ouster, they are widely believed in Egypt not to be responsible for the daily problems in Egypt. The military thought it could use the MB as a replacement for their lost civilian partner in Mr Mubarak. Instead the MB used its time in office to consolidate power for the group at the expense of domestic issues and against the direction of the SCAF.
The pressure on Egypt’s economy appears to have become too great and the military are revisiting their political strategy. Which is all a nice way of saying: they conducted a coup. But since the military never really rescinded power, this is not a classic coup at all, but rather a rebalancing at the expense of democratic ideals.

Whether the Muslim Brotherhood can be kept out of Egyptian politics is an open question, considering it still attracts significant support from Egyptian masses and especially the Islamist groups. Many people are not supportive of the military as they see it as an atavistic framework from the unpopular Hosni Mubarak days.

Just as it always has, the military ruled from behind the scenes while the brunt of the responsibility appears to rest on the Muslim Brotherhood. This week, in an extremely ironic turn, the same middle-class, educated, English-speaking group of protestors are calling for the military to intervene as their saviour against the elected government which they fought to create a year ago. The military have played their puppet game so well that the Egyptians are actually calling on them for help.

Instead of supporting Mr Morsi’s government, the generals have acquiesced and an interim government is now in place while many of the previously ruling Muslim Brotherhood members are in military custody. Their intervention is not a typical coup in the sense that direct military control is not being enforced, but the actions of the SCAF leave very little behind in the way of democratic processes for Egypt. During the ouster of Mr Morsi, the military also nullified the controversial Egyptian constitution and will probably create a replacement political structure with key differences from the original make-up of the SCAF to govern Egypt in the short term. But it can be assured that the generals will not give up power.

At the moment, the military are without a civilian partner and the longer this situation festers, the more the Egyptian populace will become frustrated with the military and begin to blame it for their ingoing social issues. This is the political frontlines which the generals wish to avoid exposure to. What the military hope for is that the Muslim Brotherhood has learned their lesson and will begin to listen to SCAF direction once more. However, the MB is by far the largest political group in Egypt and it is highly likely they will enter government again if elections are conducted.

Those who voted for the MB in the last elections are still in support of the group today. These supporters brought the MB to power last year because they were the only ones with a coherent core with very little political factionalism. But the protests in Cairo and elsewhere were different this time around because the liberal, secular factions have presented a united front and could be working towards their own political group. This group is loosely united under the June 30 movement associated with the Tamarod political faction and could offer the first real alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood for civilian rule. 

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