Egypt: on the Edge of the Precipice?

Two years after the “Arab Spring”, it may look as if Egypt is now back at the start. The military is left in power, protesters are shot in greater numbers than under the old regime, and opposition figures are imprisoned.

  • Who are the actors in the Egyptian power struggle?
  • What do the actors stand for?
  • What really happened?
  • Has the revolution in Egypt suffered defeat?

2: The actors

The revolutionaries who in 2011 stood shoulder to shoulder behind the demand that the old government must leave, were actually an alliance of quite different political forces . They all claim the “legacy of the revolution” even though they are now on either side of a bitter conflict .

The clearest distinction is between Islamists who want religion to have a greater place in politics and society, and the “liberals” who do not.

ISLAMISTS. Between the Islamists we must distinguish between two directions:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood, which has banned us for almost all of its eighty years. It has a strong and disciplined, nationwide organization, clearly the best organized movement in the country with perhaps one million members. Since the 1970s, the Brotherhood has invested in peaceful parliamentary work and gained support through the pursuit of social welfare.
  • The more conservative Salafists (see facts), who until 2011 turned their backs on political work and only focused on the mission of “right practice” between the threatening. After the revolution, they changed their minds and threw themselves into politics with several different parties.

LIBERAL. Those we call liberals, or “non-Islamists”, are at least as composed. They include Socialists and Social Democrats, Nasserists (cf. former President Nasser), traditional liberals and others who held office in the old Mubarak regime but resigned in time. In this group we also find some Islamic groups that have broken with the Brotherhood and people from the Coptic Christian minority. Some of these liberals call themselves ” secular “, most do not want to go that far.

3: First step towards democracy

When President Mubarak was pressured to resign on February 11, 2011, it was after massive protests that liberals, youth and the Brotherhood stood together . The direct reason for his departure, however, was that the military leaders pushed him out. The old government was at its core military with a civilian cover , it had our own elections and several opposition parties, but only Mubarak could win the election. The military thus sat with power behind the scenes. After the fall of Mubarak, they stepped forward and took over as a ” Higher Military Council”.

The important thing for the military was to secure their great economic interests , and neither the Islamists nor the liberals have dared to challenge these privileges. The Military Council therefore opened up for a democratic process in which all political forces, including the Islamists, participated. Parliamentary elections were held in January 2012. The fraternity’s new ” Freedom and Justice Party ” was, as expected, the largest with 35 percent of the vote.

But the rest came as a shock: The liberal and left-wing parties were almost wiped out with only 20 percent combined. The big winners were those who a few months before had said that politics was somewhat unclean: the Salafists. They received 25 per cent and thus together with the Brotherhood formed a large majority in the new national assembly.

This assembly, however, had a short life. She had barely come together and had a commission appointed to draft a new constitution which would then lay the groundwork for new elections. Then the Constitutional Court intervened. It declared the parliamentary election invalid and dissolved the National Assembly, based on a disagreement over a minor point in the old election law.

4: The Brotherhood in Power?

Then the far more important presidential election was all underway. Here, too, limits were set for who was allowed to line up. The top three candidates were expelled for formal reasons, including the only known Salafist candidate, Abu Ismail, but also the Brotherhood’s Khayrat al-Shatir, the military’s Omar Sulayman and several others.

The fraternity had nevertheless nominated a “reserve candidate”, the parliamentarian Muhammad Mursi. He received the most votes in the first round, while the non-religious were divided between five or six candidates. Samla achieved almost half of the votes, but none of them more than Mursi (25 percent) and the military-friendly Ahmad Shafiq (23 percent). These two therefore went on to the second round in June 2012, where Mursi won by around 52 percent.

Thus the Brotherhood, which the year before had said that they would seek a majority in parliament or the presidency, had won both and stood at its highest. But then things went awry, before Mursi was removed by force one year later. What went wrong, and why?

The most important problem was the economy . Egypt had been mismanaged under Mubarak, dominated by a corrupt class of leading military and rich people. Unemployment was sky high and there was often a shortage of ordinary consumer goods. The uprising in 2011 was therefore both a political
and a social uprising, and most people saw it as the same thing: When only the corrupt clique of Mubarak was gone, everything would be fixed quickly – people would get jobs and poverty would disappear. The hope was clearly completely unrealistic, and the unrest surrounding the riots and skepticism among investors made the economy stop even more.

The new president was blamed for it, partly unfairly, but he did little concrete to correct the financial disability. Egypt negotiated with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for loans, but the IMF demanded structural reforms that would lead to social unrest, such as removing subsidies on consumer goods such as bread and petrol. The Military Council had already stopped the negotiations, and Mursi did not raise them either. The Gulf countries (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, and Qatar) came in with large amounts of support, but most people still felt that daily life had gotten worse , not better.

5: Political chaos

Most notable , however, was the political chaos. The fraternity rejoiced that after eighty years they had come to power, while the liberals feared being overshadowed by the powerful partner. The co-operation cut itself, at the same time as the Salafists played their cards far better and came close to the Brotherhood’s policy.

Instead of a broad gathering across the center between the Brotherhood and the Liberals, we therefore got more and more a dichotomy – a polarization . There the Brotherhood and the Salafists stand on one side, while the liberals came into barren and increasingly bitter opposition to the government. This became clear in the work on the new constitution. The fraternity believed that the constitution must be characterized by the view the people had given a majority in the election, while the liberals believed that the constitution must give equal weight to all without regard to a single election result. The Salafists pressed on, and although the Brotherhood held back against their most radical proposals, it became too much for the liberals who withdrew from the constitutional work.

The proposal in the end was probably mostly a revision of the existing law from 1971, but the Salafists in particular presented it as “Egypt has now got a sharia constitution”. The Liberals repeated this in their attacks, even though it was only a couple of ambiguous sentences that had actually been changed about sharia in the new law.

This lack of political cooperation with the liberal forces was clearly the Brotherhood’s biggest mistake . They overlooked that Egypt was still in a transitional phase, so far without a constitution, without a functioning parliament, and with unfinished institutions. In 2011, they understood that, and emphasized cross-political cooperation, but the following year it was forgotten. They offered the opposition a place in the government, but only in smaller posts while they themselves were to have all the important ministries, something that was rejected. They replaced several of Mubarak’s people in the administration, but put in either technocrats or their own people, never anyone from the opposition. Thus, they created the impression of wanting to monopolize power for themselves – of wanting to “brotherhood” the state.

6: The deep state

According to WEDDINGINFASHION, Mursi also came into sharper conflict with several in the state apparatus , which was largely unchanged from Mubarak’s time and continued as before. The fraternity called this the “deep state” and accused them of actively wanting to sabotage the revolution. It was striking that the police, who were heavily scandalized after the Mubarak regime, disappeared completely from the streets, and this led to a sharp increase in crime and social unrest. With that, the police helped to undermine the Mursi board.

Sharpest, however, was the conflict with the courts , which sought to play a political role both by dissolving parliament and making several attempts to limit the president’s power through various orders. It was in that context that Mursi made his most fateful move two weeks before the new constitution was to go to a referendum: He declared that his decision was before the courts and could not be set aside by them until the new constitution had entered into force two weeks later. It was thus only meant as a time-limited power of attorney that was to prevent the court from stopping the referendum and thus the constitution. Precisely this one decision nevertheless appeared “to all” as the very proof that Mursi had now vomited himself into a dictator and set democracy aside. He quickly withdrew the statement, but the damage had already been done.

In the early summer of 2013 , the tone sharpened. The new alliance of the Brotherhood and Salafists came with several legislative proposals that the liberals perceived as attempts to Islamize society. At the same time, the tone was sharpened against the religious minorities. The Christians and the few Shiites in Egypt were subjected to various attacks. The Liberals resisted, and a youth movement , Tamarrud, demanded that Mursi resign. According to them, over thirty million signed this, and on June 30 , the anniversary of the change of power , massive demonstrations were held.

Again, there will be tens of millions in the streets – the number could not be confirmed, but there were undoubtedly large crowds. Mursi refused, but quite surprisingly the army intervened three days later, deposed Mursi and appointed a transitional government . The fraternity, on the other hand, gathered for large and long-lasting demonstrations for Mursi to be reinstated. Many hundreds were killed in the clashes with the military and police that followed in the weeks that followed.

7: Was it a coup?

It is of great concern whether it is right to call the deposition of Mursi a “coup “. Those who support the change of power think this is incorrect wording. They mean the military only “followed the will of the people” expressed through the great protests. Opponents point out that the military had seized power from a legitimate president.

Both are probably partly right, in common parlance there are coups when the military takes power, whether it is from a popular election or a dictatorial president. But it is also true that the protests against the old government were genuine and extensive, so that it was a combination of a military initiative and a popular uprising.

The “people” in Egypt are undoubtedly not in agreement, both the Brotherhood and the military have great support across the country. The liberals are divided, with many there is now a hateful mood against the Brotherhood which “stole their revolution” with demands that they must be banned. Others, probably in the minority, are concerned about the violence and that the military seems to be gaining a foothold in a government with the same means as under Mubarak. The Salafists were divided in their views on the coup, but agreed with the criticism of the use of force.

Future developments are therefore uncertain. Egypt is strongly polarized between the “Brotherhood” and the “army”. A democratic process in which both are involved is now difficult to imagine. The unrest will continue and, in the worst case, provide fertile ground for Islamic guerrilla groups such as the 1990s. Probably the leadership in the Brotherhood will not see themselves lit up with it. In such a battle, they will lose what has been gained in the last forty to fifty years, but they may be overwhelmed by more radical currents.

The question is whether the Egyptians are willing to return to a military government with a new strong man. The new head of state, army leader al-Sisi , in contrast to Mubarak, is considered uncorrupt and is still popular in broad circles. But he will probably not be able to solve the economic and social problems that people judge the board by either. And in the last two years, the Egyptians have learned that it is possible to go out into the streets and demand that those who do not deliver must leave. The liberals must choose whether and for how long they want to hook their chariot to the military, and the Salafists must find out whether they are most excited about going to the barricades with the Brotherhood, or trying to inherit their religious voting base. There is a danger that it may take years before this solution is found.

Egypt - on the Edge of the Precipice