A spring far away

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February 2, 2011: Pro-government demonstrators, below, and anti-government demonstrators, above, clash in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Photo: AP

Toppled President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons, Alaa Mubarak (right) and Gamal Mubarak, behind bars during their trial at the Police Academy in Cairo on September 14, 2013. Photo: AFP

Ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in the defendant’s cage during a court hearing on charges of inciting the murder of his opponents, in Cairo. A file photograph. Morsi was president only in name. Photo: AP

President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi at the House of Representatives on June 2, after he was sworn in as President for a second term. He got re-elected in April with 97.08 per cent of the votes. In 2014, he was elected with 96.9 per cent of the votes. Photo: REUTERS

President Anwar Sadat. He was assassinated in 1981 because he signed a peace deal with Israel. Photo: The Hindu Archives

President Gamal Abdel Nasser (right) with visiting Indonesian President Sukarno at Cairo airport. Nasser, who used the military to consolidate his power, was succeeded by Anwar Sadat from the military. Photo: INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTOS

Events that followed Hosni Mubarak’s ouster prove that Egypt was pregnant with a revolution that was abortable. Now the military’s hold over the country is real.

WE need to answer first where Egypt has come from if we need to understand where Egypt is now, five years after the 2013 military coup that toppled the first democratically elected President, and why it is, where it is? Where do we start? Our question can be phrased differently: Why Egypt, “where it all began” as Egyptians rightly remind visitors to their historically rich country, is not yet a democracy, not even moving towards being one?

It is not generally known that Egypt made a move towards democracy way back in 1881 when Col. Ahmad Urabi (1841-1911) successfully revolted against the ruler and compelled him to proclaim a new constitution providing for a constitutional monarchy. Unfortunately for Egypt and the Arab world, the imperial powers, the United Kingdom and France, worked together and stopped Egypt’s march towards democracy. The U.K. resorted to “gunboat diplomacy”; the ruler surrendered with alacrity; and Col. Urabi was exiled to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he died. The imperial powers saw a danger to their interests in a democratic Egypt. They had lent huge amounts to the ruler, partly to support his extravagant lifestyle, and they were not sure whether a Col. Urabi-led democratically elected government would resort to the needed austerity measures to pay back the loan that was earning unconscionably high interest rates.

Similarly, the imperial powers prevented Iran from consolidating its democracy under Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953. To safeguard its unjustified hold on Iran’s oil, Britain persuaded the United States to carry out a coup in Iran when that country moved towards a constitutional monarchy. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) spent about $10,000 to arrange that coup to overthrow Mossadeq and restore Mohammad Reza Shah, whose rule lasted until 1979.

The next question is why Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970), who led the 1952 revolution, did not set Egypt on the road to democracy. Of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru was the only true democrat. Josef Tito in Yugoslavia, admired by the West because he stood up to Joseph Stalin, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Nasser had no intention of ushering in democracy as they wanted to consolidate their personal power as rulers.

Nasser, who used the military to consolidate his power was succeeded by Anwar Sadat from the military. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 because he signed a peace deal with Israel. Hosni Mubarak from the Air Force took over and ruled until he fled to Alexandria on February 11, 2011.

Let us briefly recall the events that led to Mubarak’s fall. The virtuous virus of the Arab Spring originating in Tunisia, the first country in the Arab world to fell an uncrowned dictator, spread to Egypt, and some Egyptians demonstrated before the Tunisian Embassy in solidarity with the Tunisian revolution in January 2011.

However, even after the Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled on January 14, 2011, the West was convinced that Mubarak was invincible. The author asked some Western ambassadors in Cairo in June 2014 whether following the big demonstration in Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011, they anticipated Mubarak’s fall within 17 days. Their unanimous answer was that they expected Mubarak to survive the agitation.

On January 17, 2011, Jon Leyne, BBC’s Cairo-based correspondent, reported that Mubarak was unlikely to be toppled. His argument is worth looking at:

“The simple fact is that most Egyptians do not see any way that they can change their country or their lives through political action, be it voting, activism, or going out on the streets to demonstrate. Maybe what is happening in Tunisia will change that. But, in Egypt there are decades of inertia to overcome.”

Jon Leyne was wrong in attributing so much inertia to the Egyptian people. In 1977, Egypt saw “bread riots”, provoked by a steep increase in the price of bread at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank when Sadat wanted a loan. In the riots 79 people died and 556 were injured. The price rise was reversed.

Cairo-based ambassadors had said that the BBC’s assessment tallied with theirs. Obviously, wish becomes father to thought so often in the diplomatic world as the ambassador accredited to the ruler might be tempted to believe that the ruler cannot be felled. This was the pattern in 1979 in Tehran, too, as the author knows from his personal experience when he was posted there.

Mubarak’s pledge

Mubarak used all the tricks in the trade to remain in power. The January 25 demonstration shook him. On the 28th, a “Friday of Rage”, there was a huge demonstration, and Mubarak came on television and dismissed his Cabinet. The protesters were not impressed; to their delight, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Mubarak urging him to “give meaning to his pledges to provide better economic and democratic opportunities to the Egyptian people”. Washington signalled that it might “review” the $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt. An enraged Saudi Arabia asserted that it would replace the U.S. aid.

The next day, Mubarak appointed his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice President to signal that he no longer wanted his son Gamal Mubarak to succeed him. Ahmed Shafiq became the Prime Minister.

The protests continued with renewed vigour. Mubarak met with the military, and that meeting was projected by the government-controlled media to prove that Mubarak had the support of the military. But, the military was facing a dilemma. It was relieved to see that Gamal, a civilian, would not succeed Mubarak. But, the military wanted a man in uniform to be President and it did not want the anti-Mubarak campaign to bring in a civilian President. Further, a large number of men were serving in the military as part of compulsory military service and getting only a pittance. Would they obey the order to shoot at people?

On February 1, there was the “millioneya”, or gathering of a million, and the army decided that it had to stop supporting Mubarak. The top leadership of the military, known as the SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), came out with a statement that the armed forces “will not resort to use of force against this great people”. This marked a turning point.

Mubarak-supporters arranged for a demonstration in his favour, which did not fool anyone. Anderson Cooper of CNN was assaulted; he reported that it was a demonstration by “hired thugs”.

On February 10, in a long address to the nation, Mubarak promised to hand over power by September 2011. Tahrir Square demonstrators were not impressed; video screens there were hit by “a hail of hurled shoes and sandals”. That day, for the first time, the SCAF, until then always chaired by the President, met without him, sending a clear signal to Mubarak and to those occupying Tahrir Square. It was decided that the SCAF would remain “in continuous session to consider what procedures and measures that may be taken to protect the nation, and the achievements and aspirations of the great people of Egypt”.

On February 11, the SCAF came out with another communique stating that it had taken control. Hours later that day, Suleiman issued a 57-word statement announcing Mubarak’s decision to step down and asking the SCAF to take over.

We need to note that contrary to the popular impression, the SCAF took over power before Mubarak stepped down. In other words, Mubarak stepped down not because of the thunderous roar of the people from Tahrir but because the military had unseated him. Incidentally, Mubarak violated the constitution by asking the SCAF to take over. He should have handed over power to the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament.

When Mubarak fell, it was generally assumed that he fled in response to the demand from his people. Many in Egypt and Egypt’s well-wishers the world over, including this author, were prepared to recall William Wordsworth’s immortal lines on the French Revolution, written when he was 21:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

An abortable revolution

The common notion that there was a revolution in Egypt in 2011 needs correction. Events that took place post-Mubarak proved that it would be more correct to say that Egypt was pregnant with a revolution, which was easily abortable.

There is a widespread misconception about Egypt’s post-Mubarak political journey: President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood wanted to transform Egypt into a Sharia-ruled state where Coptic Christians and women would be second-class citizens; there would be separate swimming pools for men and women in five-star hotels, damaging the country’s tourism traffic. Moreover, Egypt would cease to be Egypt under Morsi who made himself above the law by his November 22, 2012, decree. The people of Egypt revolted, and there was a huge risk of civil war and chaos and the military, which never wanted political power, was compelled to step in and remove Morsi to rescue Egypt from perdition.

The deep state

This account is historically flawed. Here is a brief account of how the revolution was aborted. The SCAF had no intention of relinquishing power and taking Egypt towards a true democratic destiny where the military would have no political power. The SCAF looked around and formed an alliance with all those who had benefitted from Mubarak’s rule; the members of that alliance were the higher judiciary, intelligence and security services, the higher bureaucracy, corporate barons and media barons. That alliance is best described as a deep state, which arranged for creating the conditions to “justify” a military coup in July 2013.

After Mubarak fell, the SCAF and the Muslim Brotherhood did a SWOT (strengths/weaknesses/opportunities/threats) analysis and concluded that each benefitted from working with the other. The Brotherhood, delegitimised by Nasser in the 1950s, got legitimised and could stand for election. The SCAF came under pressure from street demonstrators to move faster towards election so that power could be handed over to a civilian government. It could play games and delay the move thanks to support from the Brotherhood. The two partners worked together for a while, but the SCAF was Machiavellian and started cheating by dissolving Parliament where the Brotherhood-led coalition had a majority on flimsy “legal” grounds when it appeared that Morsi was likely to win the second round of the presidential election. In short, the military did not want a combination of Brotherhood-dominated Parliament and a Brotherhood President. Further, days before Morsi assumed office on June 30, 2012, the SCAF promulgated a decree taking away all his powers and arrogating to itself the full gamut of executive powers.

President only in name

Morsi was President only in name. He summoned the dissolved Parliament, but the judiciary overruled him; he hastened with the drafting of a constitution by a Constituent Assembly, but his foes walked out of the Assembly and falsely complained that the draft constitution endangered Egypt.

With a non-cooperative bureaucracy, Morsi could not improve the economy. Artificial shortages of petrol were created. The deep state begat a movement called Tamarod (“revolt” in Arabic) that mysteriously appeared on the political scene. It was funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Naguib Sawiris, a Coptic billionaire businessman who owed $1 billion in tax. He donated $28 million to Tamarod and lent it office space. The media cooperated, and a huge disinformation campaign was unleashed against Morsi to portray him as a pharoah with absolute powers.

The intention of the deep state was to dislodge Morsi from power by the time he completed one year in office. The Tamarod arranged for street demonstrations and collected signatures endorsing Morsi’s ouster. It claimed that it had 22 million signatures. The media gave currency to that claim without any verification. Similarly, the claim that “14 to 33 million” Egyptians came on to the street seeking Morsi’s ouster was never scrutinised by the media. Max Blumenthal, an eminent investigative journalist, has exposed the myth about “these millions on the street”.

On June 23, 2012, the SCAF gave an ultimatum to Morsi to talk to the opposition and reach a settlement within seven days. The signalling was perfect. All that the opposition had to do was to reject Morsi’s invitation to talk and it did precisely that. On July 1, General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued another ultimatum to the government settle matters in 48 hours. On July 3, the security guards of Morsi suddenly disappeared and he was kidnapped and removed to an undisclosed place by the military. Obviously, it was an elaborately planned military coup enacted with an impressive choreography reminiscent of a Wagnerian opera that Hitler was fond of.

Uncontested in power

El-Sisi has been in power uncontested. He was elected President in 2014 with 96.9 per cent of the votes. The only other candidate who contested was Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist, who ran against Morsi in 2012. He was reluctant to run but the SCAF detained his daughter and blackmailed him to run. El-Sisi got re-elected in April 2018 with 97.08 per cent of the votes. It may be interesting to recall that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein did a shade better than El-Sisi. Hussein got 99.96 per cent of the votes in 1995 and 100 per cent in 2002.

In 2011, Egypt showed interest in India’s electronic voting machines (EVMs), and the Indian Election Commission discussed the matter with its Egyptian counterpart. Later, Egyptian officials told their Indian counterparts that EVMs were not “suitable” for Egypt. The unspoken implication was that EVMs might make rigging more difficult.

Yet another peculiarity of the 2018 election is that El-Sisi’s rivals were either jailed, “kidnapped”, or had to withdraw. Once again there was fear that it was going to be uncontested. The SCAF compelled a long-time El-Sisi supporter, Mohammed Moustafa Moussa, who got 3 per cent of the votes to be contrasted with 7 per cent of “spoiled votes”. Moussa filed his nomination just hours before the deadline. A widely circulated video by Wael Eskander shows a man looking like El-Sisi winning a 100-metre race shooting down fellow runners though he was much ahead of them as he had a head start.

Egypt’s economy under El-Sisi presents a mixed picture. Inflation at 33 per cent in mid 2017 has come down to 15 per cent. Unemployment at 13.2 per cent in 2013 has come down to 11.6 per cent in 2017. Female literacy at 83 per cent in 2005 has come down to 68 per cent in 2015. El-Sisi devalued the Egyptian pound drastically. The national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month equal to $176 in 2013 is only $68 in 2018.

While El-Sisi has had limited success in improving the economy, there are other areas where he has registered considerable success: Unleashing state terror on dissent from the Muslim Brotherhood or elsewhere; suppressing independent media; and moving Egypt away from democracy as fast as possible.

State terror

The worst manifestation of state terror was the unprovoked and unjustified firing on unarmed gatherings of protesters at two places in Cairo: Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda on August 14, 2013, killing at least 800 people. That atrocity is reminiscent of the 1919 Jallianwallah Bagh massacre, the only difference being that El-Sisi scored a point over the imperialist British by carrying out a huge disinformation campaign to convince a substantial section of the Egyptian population that the state had no option but to kill the “assembled terrorists”.

Mahmoud Abu Zeid, popularly known as Shawkan, was picked up while covering the August 14, 2013, atrocities and has been in jail since then. UNESCO awarded him the World Press Freedom Prize even as he is languishing in jail deprived of medical attention despite suffering from a serious illness.

There is no accurate statistics of journalists in prison as at times they just “disappear”. Journalists who dared to report on “vote buying” in the 2018 presidential election or interviewed opposition candidates were detained or publishers were fined heavily.

By unleashing state terror on the Muslim Brotherhood and by branding its members as terrorists, El-Sisi has taken Egypt away from democracy at a rapid pace. Morsi is in jail, accused of fabricated crimes, including selling state secrets to Qatar. One of the most absurd charges against Morsi is that he walked out of jail in January 2011. Morsi is seriously ill and he is deprived of medical care.

In short, the military, which holds that Egypt should always be ruled by a man in uniform, has succeeded in capturing and retaining power. The best description of what has happened since the January 25, 2011, revolution is best left to Shakespeare:

O, how this spring of love resembleth

The uncertain glory of an April day;

Which now shows all the beauty of the sun,

And by and by a cloud takes all away

We know that the military made the clouds. But, does it mean that the sun of democracy will not shine again in the Egyptian firmament? Democracy needs democrats, and Egypt is currently short of them though the 60,000 people incarcerated by El-Sisi gives some hope that one day the clouds will be dispelled. As the Persian adage says: This too shall pass!