Monday, 4 June 2012

Egypt's Long, Hot Summer

Egypt’s liberal progressives are going about stunned today. They shake their heads in despair: Has is come to this? A choice between equal evils for President: either Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak Redux personified in Ahmed Shafiq, the Mubarak-era Prime Minister who presided over the infamous ‘Battle of the Camel’ in Tahrir Square when peaceful young protestors were set upon by Mubarak thugs. Shafiq represents back to the future in every sense: for one thing, he is a military man like every president of Egypt to date: Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak.  He is also an unreformed counter-revolutionary hardliner who in a recent public speech affirmed his admiration for Mubarak and promised, if elected, to ban demonstrations by cutting off electricity to ‘shut down Cairo in ten minutes.’
It is a dismaying sign of how far the perception of the security situation has deteriorated in Egypt over the past year that there are many ordinary citizens, who once supported the revolution, but would vote tomorrow for the ‘law and order’ candidate, as Shafiq presents himself. But that rationale overlooks a fatal flaw: the record of the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) in ensuring security in the eighteen months since the revolution has been abysmal, as has its record in policing its own forces in their dealings with civilians.
To ‘law-and-order’ voters, the mantra of ‘anybody but the Muslim Brotherhood’ is paramount, and for good reason. The shocking domination of the MB Party in the parliamentary elections has panicked secular-thinking Egyptians before the prospect of a complete takeover of power by the Islamist movement. The obscure and uncharismatic Morsi is a pinch-hitter for the Muslim Brotherhood boss, Khairat El-Shater, himself disqualified on account of his imprisonment under Mubarak. Alarmists warn that, if elected, Morsi will take his orders from El-Shater, just as Putin’s protégé place-holder president took his orders from Putin; they warn that Morsi will be unduly influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood ‘guide’, or spiritual leader, just as John Kennedy was suspected, as the first Catholic candidate, of taking his guidance from the Vatican.
The Coptic community has the most reason to be alarmed by the prospect of a Muslim Brotherhood domination of both the legislative and the executive branches. It has taken its guidance directly from the Patriarch’s office and thrown its entire weight behind Ahmed Shafiq.
Secular-minded women, as well, are alarmed at the specter of an Islamist victory resulting not only in a more restrictive social climate but to the actual revocation of certain gains for women’s rights in Muslim family law; these legal rights were acquired, or rather imposed by presidential decree, under Sadat and Mubarak, but remain controversial with a large sector of public opinion and are unlikely to withstand an open vote in Parliament.
But women, unlike Copts, do not vote as a block, and the Muslim Brotherhood counts among its activists many outspoken, committed women who support their cause wholeheartedly. Further complicating the picture for liberal Egyptian women voters is the brutality of the military in its crackdowns on women demonstrators: seared in their minds is the shocking image of the ‘blue-bra girl’, stripped, beaten, stomped on and dragged by the hair at the hands of a military riot squad. 
No wonder, then, that the young idealists who marched and died in the Revolution of January 25th feel doubly betrayed; they are left out of the political power game and cannot endorse either the Mubarak era hardliner who represents the counter-revolution or the Islamist opportunist who represents a religious absolutism that is anathema to the ideals of the revolution.
Curiously, Mubarak’s trial, which had receded behind closed doors, out of sight and out of the public mind, over the past couple of months, suddenly surged to the foreground and came to a rapid conclusion. Whose interests did this sudden closure serve? Many presume that the SCAF might have calculated that the political football of Mubarak’s trial was best taken out of the game before it could land at the feet of their candidate, Ahmed Shafiq. If so, the calculation backfired, as the sentence seems to have enraged rather than appeased a large segment of public opinion across the board. Mubarak was not held responsible for the killing of demonstrators at the hands of his security police; he was convicted only of failing to prevent the killing. The conviction has no basis in Egyptian law and is expected to be overturned on appeal; even if no appeal was granted, few expect to see Mubarak serve his life sentence in prison. Further adding to the grievance of the families of the victims and their supporters was the relative unaccountability also accorded to Mubarak’s reviled Minister of the Interior, to whom the police reported directly.  Mubarak’s two sons, widely suspected of wielding the power behind the scenes in the final days of the deposed dictator’s regime, were acquitted of all charges.
Since the sentence was proclaimed, hundreds of thousands of protesters have demonstrated in Tahrir and in city centers across Egypt. The second round of the presidential elections is scheduled for mid-June. If the MB candidate Morsi wins and the Islamists seriously engage in power struggles with the military, the SCAF might mount a coup. If Ahmed Shafiq wins, widespread unrest cannot be ruled out. Either way, it may be a long, hot summer for Egypt.

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