After the Spring

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, surrounded by top military generals, addressingthe media after an emergency meeting of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in Cairo on January 31. Photo: AFP PHOTO / HO / MENA

The ruling dispensation in the country currently enjoys public support and if it can deliver jobs and better health, education and infrastructure, including power, that support will remain.

Where is Egypt going? The question has at least three parts to it:

One, where is Egypt going politically? Is it moving in the direction of a pluralistic democracy based on freedom of the media and respect for human rights on the part of the state authorities?

Two, how is the economy faring? Is it creating more jobs to give relief to the unemployed young and improving the infrastructure, physical and human?

Three, which way is Egypt moving in terms of its foreign relations? Does its growing dependence on external assistance, from Saudi Arabia, come in the way of conducting policy based on the national interest?

It is important to phrase these questions specifically as there is a strong and widespread tendency to frame and confine questions on Egypt to “stability” and “terrorism”. While it is necessary to seek stability and to address terrorism in a manner as to reduce or eliminate it, discussions in and on Egypt often do not raise questions about the reasons for the absence of stability and the presence of terrorism. This is partly because the state in Egypt has been able to control or intimidate the media, both the part of the media owned by it and the rest, in a manner almost unprecedented in recent times in Egypt and even elsewhere.

To seek answers to the questions raised it is necessary to make a brief excursion into the past. It is not necessary to go back all the way to the time the pyramids were built though a foreign visitor cannot escape taking note of the keenness of her Egyptian interlocutors to tell her about the antiquity of their civilisation. A phrase the visitor hears again and again is Umm-al-Dunya: Egypt is the mother of the world, or rather civilisation itself; Egypt is where “it all began”.

There is another recurring theme. Egypt is “central” to the Arab world, and the six-member, oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia is “obliged” to provide funds for Egypt’s economic development. A senior Egyptian diplomat asked me a question: What will be the consequences for the rest of the Arab world if anything happens to Egypt with its 90 million people? While I was in a listening mood and deliberately restrained myself from pointing out that the population of Egypt is only 87 million at the most, the thought occurred to me that exaggeration is a common trait among my interlocutors with a few exceptions.

Modern Egypt was the creation of Mehmet Ali, who ruled from 1805 to 1848. He was of Albanian origin and was sent there as a military commander by the Ottomans when Napoleon invaded Egypt, partly to seek military glory and partly to get closer to India to fight the British by seeking an alliance with Tipu Sultan. Mehmet Ali’s rise to political power was phenomenal. He started as Governor and ended up as the founder of a dynasty that lasted until 1952 when the Free Officers under Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a coup. Nasser emerged as the most charismatic leader in the Arab world. In 1952, Egypt had a chance to move in the direction of a pluralistic democracy when the monarchy and the British control over Egypt ended.

In fact, General Muhammad Naguib, who was projected as leader by the younger Free Officers in an adroit move to render respectability to the coup, wanted to take Egypt in the direction of a liberal democracy. Nasser eased out Naguib and took Egypt in a different direction. Nasser got elected as President in 1956 in a referendum where he was the only candidate and got 99.9 per cent of the votes, prompting impartial observers to doubt the validity of the referendum. The referendum also approved a basically undemocratic Constitution concentrating too much power in the presidency with hardly any checks and balances.

Nasser died in 1970 and his deputy Muhammad Anwar El Sadat succeeded him as President. Sadat put an end to the one-party system inherited from Nasser, but he did not push hard for a normal democracy. He carried on with the blatantly undemocratic system of electing the President instituted under Nasser: the People’s Assembly nominates a candidate who has to get more than a two-thirds majority and a referendum is held with only a single candidate. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by the opponents of his 1979 peace treaty with Israel, and Hosni Mubarak, the Vice-President, succeeded him.

Mubarak carried on with the undemocratic system of election of President until 2005 when Egypt elected its President in a contested election. Mubarak got 88.6 per cent of the votes in 2005, in sharp contrast with the 98.5 per cent in the referendum of 1981, 97 per cent in 1987, 96 per cent in 1993, and 99.8 per cent in 1999. To conclude, democracy in Egypt had an exceptionally stunted growth until the 2011 revolution that felled Mubarak.

However, it is important to understand why Mubarak relinquished power in 2011. He left partly because Egyptians, having shed their fear of the state security system, gathered in Tahrir Square and elsewhere demanding him to go. But the stronger reason for Mubarak’s decision to leave was that the Army “invited” him to leave. The Army came to the conclusion that Mubarak’s presidency was not sustainable and it wanted to seize political power in order to protect its vital interests. Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to succeed him and the Army was not willing to see a civilian occupy the presidency. Gamal was also seen as a threat to the Army’s own economic empire, accounting for anywhere between 25 and 40 per cent of Egypt’s GDP, completely outside audit by the state.

The 2011 revolution got rid of Mubarak, but the “Deep State” led by the Army smartly grabbed power with no intention of handing it over to the people despite its announcement that it would do so in six months. The associates of the Army in the Deep State are the higher judiciary, the higher bureaucracy, and the security and intelligence establishment, known as Mukhabarat in Arab states. The Deep State resisted the holding of elections for a while but reluctantly gave in to people’s demand, and in the first ever free and fair election in Egypt, held in November 2011-January 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party emerged at the top with 37.5 per cent of the votes and 44.9 per cent of the seats. The second party was the Islamic Bloc, which won 25 per cent of the seats. The parliament was convened and it found that it was without any powers to question or supervise the Army-appointed government. More than once the Prime Minister threatened the Speaker that the House could be dissolved at any time.

The Brotherhood, afraid of upsetting the public by appearing to grab too much power, had before the general election given a pledge to desist from contesting for the presidency. But the unexpected success in the parliamentary elections tempted the Brotherhood to renege on its commitment. When the Brotherhood’s candidate Mohamed Morsi appeared to succeed in the second round of the election, the Deep State promptly got the parliament dissolved in June 2012.

Before Morsi entered the presidential palace (June 30, 2012), the Deep State ensured that he would have no powers over budget or legislation. The Army had come out with proclamations arrogating to itself such powers. Morsi tried hard to clothe his office with some powers. He hurried with the drafting of the Constitution, and his opponents protested and walked out of the body writing the Constitution. He sacked Field Marshal Mohamad Hussain Tantawi, the Defence Minister, and appointed Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in his place. Morsi believed that El-Sisi was a friend and a reliable ally of the Brotherhood.

There was a Damocles’ sword hanging over the body writing the Constitution as reports and rumours surfaced that the higher judiciary was about to dissolve it just as the parliament was. Morsi came out with a proclamation asserting that his decisions in certain matters were beyond judicial purview. He was accused of playing the Pharaoh, and a young man sent him a letter in hieroglyphics as it is the only language he would understand.

There were other missteps by Morsi. The adversaries of the Brotherhood and the Deep State figured out their opportunity. Almost like a mirage in a desert, a grass-roots movement by the name of Tamarod suddenly materialised and people started swelling up on the streets asking for Morsi to step down. He misread the situation, believing that the Army was with him, and when it appeared that the Army was not with him, he convinced himself that the United States would never “permit” the Army to unseat him. On July 3, 2013, the Army kidnapped Morsi and held him incommunicado in a secret place. In short, the Army was destined to unseat Morsi, but the timing and the manner it was done were determined partly by Morsi’s missteps.

The U.S. was bewildered and it debated whether to say it was a coup or not. A coup meant the stoppage of U.S. military aid and the consequent erosion of U.S. influence in Egypt, with serious adverse implications for U.S. interests in the region, including the security of Israel. The European Union (E.U.) tried to mediate between the Brotherhood, which started a big agitation, and the Army, which tried to put down the agitation with brutality. On August 14, 2013, protesters in a sit-in at al-Nahda Square and at Raaba al-Adawiya Square were shot at. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 817 persons were killed. The killing was similar to the one at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 with one difference. The Army proved much cleverer than the British and even today many Egyptians believe that the Army action was necessary and justified.

The Army decided to have its own man as President and decided to field El-Sisi. Initially he declined, but later agreed to “obey the will of Egypt”. It was not easy to find another candidate to stand. Finally, Hamdeen Sabahy was reportedly blackmailed into standing and El-Sisi was elected with 97 per cent of the votes in June 2014.

The parliamentary election is yet to be held. It is difficult to say whether the deeply embedded Deep State is serious about ushering in genuine democracy. The only instance in history where an army has begotten democracy occurred in Japan under General MacArthur in an entirely different historical setting.

Challenge to the economy

Coming to the economy, the central challenge is employment. To generate employment, there is a need for investment in new projects that will be implemented without corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. Tourism will pick up only when the terrorist attacks in Sinai and elsewhere are addressed.

Coming to foreign relations, Cairo played a clever game with Washington by getting closer to Moscow and by sending out a loud signal that the GCC would give many times more financial aid than the U.S. could give or withhold. Egypt won the stand-off and the U.S. has come around. The E.U. too is keen to do business as usual.

Saudi Arabia welcomed the ouster of Morsi with enthusiasm and promptly offered financial support. All told, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait have together offered $20 billion as aid. The question is whether the increasing dependence will circumscribe Cairo’s foreign policy options. A good part of the funding from Saudi Arabia and others in the GCC (except Qatar) goes directly to the Army and not to the central bank. The Army has from time to time handed over money to a cash-strapped government.

As regards Saudi Arabia’s new King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, there is some concern in Cairo. He seems to be keen on a united Sunni front against the “Shia crescent” led by Iran and would like Egypt to reconcile with Turkey and even stop taking a tough line with the Brotherhood. Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and President El-Sisi were in Saudi Arabia on the same day. Reportedly, Erdogan got better treatment protocol-wise. There was also a suggestion in some diplomatic circles in Riyadh that El-Sisi had gone uninvited. It is also learnt that Saudi Arabia has not paid all that was promised. Though Egypt was rather gung-ho about sending troops to Yemen before the Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheikh (March 21-22), subsequently it was clear that it might take as many six months to form a 40,000-strong joint Arab force.

With Qatar, there is tension. The rather draconian manner in which three Al Jazeera journalists were treated upset the government in Doha. (They were sentenced to jail by an Egyptian court on terrorism-related charges early last year.) Egypt was aghast that the Qatari government was giving refuge and money to the Brotherhood. Some Brotherhood leaders were thrown out of Doha and there might be a resolution in the case of the journalists in the near future. The Emir of Qatar attended the Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, but the Egyptian Foreign Office was quick to point out that it was not a bilateral visit.

On the whole, the ruling dispensation enjoys public support, and if it can deliver jobs and better health, education and infrastructure, including power, that support will remain. My interlocutors rarely showed any burning urge to have a democratic system not dependent on support from the Army. The Army is held in high esteem except by the Brotherhood. It is difficult to believe that the Army will be able to wipe out the Brotherhood, established in 1928. It is in Egypt’s interest that the two most powerful forces in Egypt should work out a modus vivendi. But there is hardly any chance for that to happen.

President Morsi visited New Delhi (March 18-21, 2013) and a number of sensible agreements were signed. But the present dispensation in Cairo is not interested in any follow-up for reasons not difficult to figure out. India should set out to work with the government in place and an early visit by the External Affairs Minister, if possible before she goes to Israel, is indicated.

Ambassador K.P. Fabian was in Egypt in the second half of March to collect material for his forthcoming book The Arab Spring That Was and Wasn’t.