The Struggle for Egypt’s Soul

CounterPunch, October 15, 2012

When the official announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election as Egypt’s president was made following a tantalizing period of uncertainty, I had raised some questions about the country’s constitutional future. I had also suggested that a multilayered battle between the military and civilians, Islamists and secularists, and conservatives and liberals was likely (Palestine Chronicle, July 3, 2012). An example of such conflict has been witnessed at Tahrir Square in recent days. Clashes between liberals and Muslim Brotherhood supporters show simmering discontent in a polarized society as Morsi walks a political tightrope.

In his first hundred days in office, President Morsi has exercised caution, but also made some bold moves in a bid to keep many sides happy. On October 8, he announced a “blanket pardon” for all political prisoners arrested since the beginning of the uprising which overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and finally led to free elections in which Morsi won the presidency. The announcement said that all those serving prison sentences or still awaiting trial on charges to do with supporting the revolution would be released and charges against them would be dropped. The decree excludes those convicted of murder, but pointedly includes military officers arrested for taking part in demonstrations against Mubarak’s dictatorship.

Pressure had been growing on Mubarak’s successors to announce an amnesty and Morsi could hardly have ignored it after his election as the candidate of the Freedom and Justice Party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the wake of the anti-Mubarak uprising. That he was careful to address wider sections of society, including the military, was hardly surprising. The move was aimed at helping the new administration in several ways. For forty years under Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, mostly with American support, Egypt’s military-dominated ruling elite had alienated the opposition and much of Egyptian society. The new administration must demonstrate different priorities.

On closer scrutiny, however, his “blanket pardon” was described by some commentators as insufficient. The presidential decree’s first article said that the pardon was “for all felony convictions and misdemeanor convictions or attempted crimes committed to support the revolution and the fulfillment of this goal.” Amnesty International has now said that “all Egyptians tried in front of military courts need retrials, including those whose offenses did not relate to the revolution.”

Morsi’s political base is the Muslim Brotherhood, a major force in Egyptian society for decades. But his narrow victory in the 2012 election against Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister of the Mubarak era and regarded as the military’s favorite, was made possible with support from moderate and secular voters. Morsi cannot shake off the Muslim Brotherhood label, perhaps he does not need to, but he was careful enough to declare that he was going to represent all Egyptians.

The task of a president in post-Mubarak Egypt is extraordinarily delicate. He has to establish civilian control over the military, which has dominated the country’s power structure for decades. Yet he has to work with the generals. He must not alienate other sections of the population as he remains a Muslim Brotherhood figure above all. He must respond to raised expectations following the old regime’s demise and his election. At the same time, he should ensure continuity and avoid a dramatic break from the past, for Egypt lives in a volatile environment.

President Morsi’s move against the military top brass, particularly ordering the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi from his posts as commander of the armed forces and defense minister in August, seemed to have been executed with remarkable ease. But recent clashes at Tahrir Square highlight the continuing tensions between secularists and minorities on one hand, and Muslim Brotherhood supporters on the other. It is too soon to say that the task of reshaping the military into a force compliant to the democratically-elected government is complete. For the middle ranking and junior officers are bound to take longer to change. Meanwhile, the president needs their help to maintain order.

If Morsi’s move to change the military’s top leadership was executed with ease, his attempt to remove the state prosecutor general, Abdel Meguid Mahmud, has run into difficulties. The president announced Mahmud’s removal and appointment as Egypt’s envoy to the Vatican after a court acquitted more than twenty senior Mubarak era officials of organizing an attack on protestors during the uprising. Mahmud’s office was held responsible for presenting “weak evidence” against the accused. But the presidential order resulted in an outcry from the judges, who complained that Morsi had exceeded his powers in dismissing the state prosecutor general. In a setback to the president’s authority, the prosecutor general said that he was going to stay in his job. And the president was forced to back down.

Another controversy is brewing over the draft constitution released for discussion. This time, Human Rights Watch has called on the Egyptian Constituent Assembly to “amend articles in the draft constitution that undermine human rights in post-Mubarak Egypt,” The draft, it said, provides for some basic political and economic rights but falls far short of international law on women’s and children’s rights, freedom of religion and expression, and torture and trafficking.

The fall of Hosni Mubarak was an historic victory for the people, but the outcome of the struggle for the soul of the Egyptian nation is far from certain.

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Old State Instruments Are Still in Place: What’s Changed in Egypt?

CounterPunch, June 5, 2012; Palestine Chronicle, June 4, 2012

The day of judgment for Hosni Mubarak arrived on June 2. The 84-year-old deposed president was given a life sentence with his interior minister Habib al-Adly for the killing of hundreds of protesters during last year’s uprising. Mubarak and his sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges. The court also acquitted a number of key interior ministry officials and security chiefs. Some Egyptians celebrated immediately after the verdicts were announced. Soon, however, the mood turned angry, because many thought that the verdicts were too lenient. Both Mubarak and Adly will have the right to appeal. Other factors, too, continue to foment anxiety in the country.

Millions of Egyptians had voted in the first round of the presidential election only a few days before. Just who will become president after the final round in a fortnight is not certain, but the drift of Egyptian politics is clear enough. The two leading candidates who emerged from the first round and will fight it out for the presidency of the most important Arab state are poles apart; the moderates have been eliminated from the race. One candidate to emerge from the first round was Muhammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just behind Mursi was Ahmed Shafiq, a former military officer and briefly prime minister in the final days of the Mubarak presidency.

Shafiq was initially disqualified under a law prohibiting figures associated with the previous regime, but hastily reinstated as a presidential candidate. He received favorable coverage in the state media in the run-up to the first round. When the votes had been counted, the difference between Mursi and Shafiq was no more than one percent and both went into the second round.

The most fundamental question to arise at this juncture is what has changed in Egypt? The Egyptian uprising that saw the end of Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in 2011 was largely bloodless as far as the protesting millions were concerned. The same could not be said about gangs, said to be associated with Mubarak’s security services, who attacked peaceful crowds, killing and wounding hundreds of people.

Events have since included attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christians, their churches and other members of the public. The military has maintained, even consolidated, its hold while Islamic parties have come to dominate the new parliament after recent elections. There is inevitably a tacit understanding between the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized political force, and Egypt’s ruling Military Council. It is a familiar scenario in which two equally powerful sides learn to live with each other in the same environment.

Those eliminated include some high profile figures like Amr Mousa, former Arab League Secretary General and one-time cabinet minister under Mubarak. Supporters of the Egyptian Spring were bitterly disappointed after their vote split between Hamdin Sabbahi, a leftist, and Abdul Moneim Aboul Fatouh, a physician and lawyer renowned for years of opposition to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Fatouh had broken from the Muslim Brotherhood last year and stood as an independent. Together, Sabbahi and Fatouh secured forty percent of the vote, but found themselves eliminated. The feeling among many Egyptians is that the forces of real change were so close, yet so far and will have to wait for another day. The instruments of state power are still in the same place.

Their bitterness was summed up by a spokesman of the secular liberal Free Egyptians Party, Ahmed Khairy. He described Mursi as an “Islamic fascist” and Shafiq as a “military fascist.” And he lamented that the outcome of the first round was “the worst case scenario.”

For a country which endured long years of brutal dictatorship, helped by one superpower or the other, and then went through a spring which brought optimism on the horizon, the future looks far from promising. Certainly insofar as the moderate majority of nearly 60 percent Egyptians is concerned.

Thousands came out to demonstrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo after the results of the first round were confirmed. Protests are continuing in other parts of the country. Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram acknowledged that crowds vented their anger outside the Constitutional Court, insisting that they would never accept Shafiq––describing him as the “second Mubarak.” Amid ugly scenes, protesters were attacked by unidentified thugs. Shafiq’s headquarters was set ablaze after being ransacked and his home came under attack.

Against the background of these developments, large numbers of Egyptians continue to feel disenfranchised. To them, the second round promises one of two unwelcome scenarios and neither candidate’s victory may bring genuine change in a country yearning for democracy. The election of Shafiq would mean a continuation of the old era. It would suit the Egyptian armed forces, the United States and Israel much more than a victory for Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

There have been episodes in the past, both during Hosni Mubarak’s and his predecessor Anwar Sadat’s rule, when the regime entered into a tacit understanding with the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, though, the Islamists dominate the Egyptian parliament, but real power remains with the armed forces. Egypt still does not have a new constitution and the powers of the president and parliament are yet to be defined. Powerful internal and external players are still in the game. Like the deposed strongman Hosni Mubarak and his associates, Egypt’s emerging system is on trial.

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