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Egypt’s Man of Destiny – For a While

To the vast surprise of absolutely nobody, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi won the Egyptian presidential election last week. Moreover, he won it with a majority that would pass for a resounding triumph in most countries. But it is a disarmingly modest majority for an Arab Man of Destiny.

Not for Sisi the implausible margins of victory claimed by Men of Destiny in other Arab countries, like the 96.3 percent that Egypt’s last dictator, Hosni Mubarak, claimed in his first election 21 years ago, or the spectacular 100 percent that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein allegedly got in his last election in 2002. No, Sisi just claimed 93.3 percent of the votes, a number low enough that it might actually be true.

Sisi’s real problem is that even with the media cowed and the full resources of the state behind him, only 46 percent of eligible Egyptians turned out to vote. He had confidently predicted an 80 percent turnout.

As an aspiring dictator who overthrew the country’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, only one year ago, Sisi needed a big turnout. At least 1,500 protesters have been shot dead in the streets, and a minimum of 16,000 political dissidents are in jail. Sisi has shut down a popular revolution and he needed to demonstrate massive public support for what he did.

He didn’t get it. Towards the end of the scheduled two days of the election, the people around him panicked. The interim prime minister, Ibrahim Mahlab, let slip that barely 30 percent had voted so far – and the regime abruptly announced that there would be a third day of voting. An unscheduled public holiday was declared, and non-voters were threatened with a large fine.

In the end, Sisi’s officials claimed a 46 percent turnout, although journalists reported that many polling booths were almost empty on the third day. But let’s be generous and assume that 40 percent of eligible Egyptians did vote.

If 93.3 percent of those people truly did vote for Sisi, then he has the support of just over one-third of Egyptians. Other Arab dictators have ruled their countries for decades with no more popular support than that, but it will probably not sustain Sisi through the hard times that are coming. Too many Egyptians are struggling just to feed their families.

Egypt’s economy is running on fumes, and there would not even be enough bread for people to eat – Egypt is the world’s largest importer of wheat – if Sisi were not getting massive infusions of aid from Saudi Arabia and most of the smaller Gulf states, which are very happy that he is killing off the Egyptian revolution.

But even the great wealth of the Gulf kingdoms cannot win Sisi more than a breathing space: all of them together have only about a third of Egypt’s population. And there is no good reason to believe that the Egyptian army, which is now effectively in charge, has the skill to resolve the country’s grave economic problems. Indeed, its highest priority will be to protect its own massive business empire.

Sisi talks about how Egyptians “must work, day and night, without rest” to restore the economy after three years of revolutionary chaos, and his budget plan calls for slashing energy subsidies by 22 percent in one year. Austerity is not going to win him any thanks from Egypt’s poor, however, and his political honeymoon will not last long.

What will happen after that can be predicted from the results of Egypt’s only fully free election two years ago. Mohamed Morsi and another Islamist candidate got a total of 42 percent of the votes in the first round of that election, while the leftist candidate, Hamdeen Sabahi, got 21 percent. (Morsi won in the second round, when Sabahi and two other candidates had dropped out.)

We can safely presume that few Islamist supporters voted at all in last week’s election. It’s clear that most of Sabahi’s former supporters also abstained: he was the only candidate who dared to run against Sisi, but he only got 3 percent this time. Islamists and leftists therefore make up the majority of the 55-60 percent who did not vote for Sisi this time – and that is good news for him, because the two groups have very little in common.

Those who did vote for Sisi were mostly people with no strong ideological convictions who were simply exhausted by the turmoil of the past three years. They voted for “stability”, and believed Sisi’s promise that he could deliver it. So long as they go on believing that, a deeply divided opposition poses little threat to him.

But most of the people who voted for Sisi thought that when he said “stability”, he really meant an improvement in their living standards, and it’s most unlikely that he can deliver that. When they lose faith in Sisi, the opposition will achieve critical mass, and it probably won’t take more than two years. The Egyptian revolution is not over yet.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“Egypt’s…empire”)

The Arab Spring Three Years On

27 January 2014

The Arab Spring Three Years On

By Gwynne Dyer

It has taken a little longer than it did after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution we can definitely say that the “Arab Spring” is finished. The popular, mostly non-violent revolutions that tried to overthrow the single-party dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Arab world had their moments of glory, but the party is over and the bosses are back.

People in the Middle East hate having their triumphs and tragedies treated as a second-hand version of European history, but the parallels with Europe in 1848 are hard to resist. The Arab tyrants had been in power for just as long, the revolutions were fuelled by the same mixture of democratic idealism and frustrated nationalism, and once again the trigger for the revolutions (if you had to highlight just one factor) was soaring food prices.

In many places the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first – Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen – just like the French, German, and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples”. For a time it looked like everything would change. Then came the counter-revolutions and it all fell apart, leaving only a few countries permanently changed for the better – like Denmark then, or Tunisia in today’s Arab world.

The disheartening parallels are particularly strong between Egypt, by far the biggest country in the Arab world, and France, which was Europe’s most important and populous country in 1848. In both cases, the revolutions at first brought free media, civil rights and free elections, but also a great deal of social turmoil and disorientation.

In both France and Egypt the newly enfranchised masses then elected presidents whose background alarmed much of the population: a nephew of Napoleon in one case, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the other. And here the stories diverge for a time – but the ending, alas, does not.

In France, President Louis Napoleon launched a coup against his own presidency, and re-emerged in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III. It had been a turbulent few years, and by then a large majority of the French were willing to vote for him because he represented authority, stability and tradition. They threw away their own democracy.

In Egypt last year, the army allied itself with former revolutionaries to overthrow the elected president, Mohamed Morsi – and within a few months, after an election which will genuinely represent the wish of most Egyptians to trade their new democracy for authority, stability and tradition, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will duly assume the presidency. The counter-revolution is as popular in Egypt now as it was in France then.

And if you fear that this analogy is really relevant, then here’s the worst of it. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for twenty years. If that timetable were also to apply to the Arab world, then the next round of democratic revolutions would only be due around 2035. But it probably doesn’t apply.

There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011. The 1848 revolutions were violent explosions of popular anger that succeeded in hours or days, while those of 2010-11 were largely non-violent, more calculated struggles that took much longer to win. Non-violent revolutions give millions of people time to think about why they are taking these risks and what they hope to get out of it.

They may still lose focus, take wrong turns, even throw all their gains away. Mistakes are human, and so is failure. But once people have participated in a non-violent revolution they are permanently politicised, and in the long run they are quite likely to remember what they came for.

The most promising candidate to succeed Gene Sharp as the world authority on non-violent revolutions is Erica Chernoweth, a young American academic who co-wrote the study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict” with diplomat Maria Stephan. A lot of their book is about why non-violent revolution succeeds or fails, but most interesting of all are their statistics about HOW OFTEN it succeeds.

Their headline statistic is that violent revolutionary struggles succeed in overthrowing an oppressive regime only 30 percent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 percent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly under-performing.

There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed). There were two no-score draws: Yemen and Jordan. And there were three abject failures: Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, the latter ending up in a full-scale civil war. (Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start.) So far, not so good.

But the most relevant statistic from Chernoweth and Stephan’s work for the future of the Arab world is this: “Holding all other variables constant, the average country with a failed non-violent campaign has over a 35 percent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.” Failure may be only temporary. The game isn’t over yet.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 13. (“People…prices”; and “There have…good”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

 

Egypt Referendum

11 January 2014

Egypt Referendum

By Gwynne Dyer

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup against Egypt’s elected president last July, has one of the finest collections of military headgear in the entire Middle East. Perhaps that’s why he has still not admitted that he plans to become the next president: he can’t decide which hat to throw into the ring.

His own explanation for his shyness comes straight out of the Aspiring Dictator’s Handbook: “If I nominate myself, there must be a popular demand, and a mandate from my army,” he told the state-owned paper Al-Ahram.“When Egyptians say something, we obey, and I will never turn my back on Egypt.”

Egyptian generals are deeply patriotic people, and three others before Sisi have sacrificed their own desire for a quiet life in order to rule Egypt: Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70), Anwar Sadat (1970-81) and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). In fact, the last three years have been the only time in the life of the great majority of Egyptians when a general has not been running the country, and Sisi seems ready to make the supreme sacrifice too.

A mandate from the army shouldn’t be hard to get, since he runs the whole organisation. And as far as “popular demand” is concerned, Sisi is clearly planning to use a “yes” vote in this week’s referendum on the new constitution as proof that the people want him for president.

The new constitution will be the third in four years. It replaces the one that was written and adopted (also by referendum) during the brief, unhappy rule of President Mohamed Morsi, who took office on 30 June 2012 and was overthrown on 3 July 2013. It removes the “Islamic” changes that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote into the last one, which should appeal to secular Egyptians, but that’s not what makes it attractive to General Sisi.

The new clauses that only a soldier could love include one that gives the Egyptian military the right to appoint the defence minister, and another that says the military budget will not be subject to civilian oversight. It also retains the much-criticised clause that allows civilians to be tried in military courts. Sisi reckons enough civilians will vote for it anyway, some because they hate the Islamists and some because they are just tired of all the upheavals.

Maybe they will, because the whole Arab world is suffering from revolution fatigue: the “Arab awakening” has caused such turbulence that many people would find a return to the old dictatorships almost comforting. It’s true even in Syria, where some of the rebels are starting to talk about making a deal with the Assad regime in order to isolate the Islamist extremists and hasten the end of the war.

There has been no war in Egypt, but about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters were massacred in the streets of Cairo by the “security forces” last summer, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation. There have been many thousands of arrests, not only of senior Muslim Brotherhood members but recently of secular critics of the of the military regime as well.

Egyptians are frightened and exhausted, and Sisi apparently thinks they will gratefully accept a return to army rule (behind a democratic facade). But his nervousness is showing: there’s barely a wall in Cairo that is not covered with “Yes” posters and pictures of Sisi, while people trying to put up “No” posters get arrested. Sisi is probably right to be nervous.

In late September, three months after the coup, Zogby Research Services carried out an extensive opinion poll in Egypt for the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi. It revealed that confidence in the army had already dropped from 93 percent to 70 percent, and it probably has gone on dropping.

General Sisi and former President Morsi had almost equal support in the country – 46 percent for Sisi, 44 percent for Morsi (who now faces trial for “inciting his supporters to carry out premeditated murder” and various other alleged crimes).

But Morsi’s trial was postponed last week from 8 January to 1 February, allegedly because bad weather prevented him from being flown from his prison in Alexandria to Cairo for the trial. That’s a rather long spell of bad weather, and besides it’s only two and a half hours by road from Alexandria to Cairo. One suspects that the military regime did not want Morsi to make his first public appearance since the coup just before the referendum.

The Zogby poll also revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents blame the last military regime, under Hosni Mubarak, for the problems facing Egypt today. All in all, this is hardly a firm foundation on which to complete the counter-revolution and build a new military regime.

The likeliest outcome of the referendum on the new constitution this week (Tuesday and Wednesday) will be a modest majority for the “Yes”, but on a very low turnout. If it is lower than the mere 33 percent who voted in the referendum on the last constitution in 2012, then Sisi may have to reconsider his plan to run for the presidency.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“There…well”; and “But Morsi’s…referendum”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

 

Egypt: The Futility of Foreign Intervention

18 August 2013

Egypt: The Futility of Foreign Intervention

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s a silly question, obviously, but it still has to be asked. What, if anything, should the rest of the world do about the tragedy in Egypt? The same question has been hanging in the air about the even greater Syrian tragedy for well over a year now, and it is starting to come up again in Iraq as well.

All three of the biggest countries in the heart of the Arab world are now in a state of actual or incipient civil war. The death toll in the Syria civil war last month was 4,400 people. More than 1,000 people were killed by bombs and bullets last month in Iraq, the bloodiest month in the past five years. And at least 1,000 people have been killed in Egypt in the past week, the vast majority of them unarmed civilians murdered by the army.

You will note that I did not write “killed in clashes.” That’s the sort of weasel-word formula that the media use when they do not want to offend powerful friends. Let’s be plain: the Egyptian army is deliberately massacring supporters of the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government that it overthrew last June (whom it now brands as “terrorists”) in order to terrorise them into submission.

The “deep state” is coming back in Egypt, and the useful idiots who now believe that the army is on their side, the secular democrats of the left and the opportunistic Noor Party on the religious right, will in due course find themselves back in the same old police stations, being tortured by the same old goons. So should outsiders just stand by and watch it all happen?

What are the alternatives? Well, President Barack Obama told the generals off in no uncertain terms after the biggest massacre on 14 August. “We appreciate the complexity of the situation,” he said sternly. “We recognise that change takes time,” he added, his anger mounting steadily. “There are going to be false starts and difficult days,” he said, almost shaking with rage.

“We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years but sometimes in generations,” he concluded, “but our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back.” And with that, he cancelled the Bright Star joint US-Egyptian military exercise that was scheduled for September. The Egyptian generals must have been trembling in their boots.

Just in case they weren’t, Obama added that “I’ve asked my national security team to assess the implications of the actions taken by the (Egyptian) interim government and further steps we may take as necessary with respect to the US-Egyptian relationship.” Curiously, the Egyptian generals did not stop killing people upon hearing all this.

The inaction of the United States is due to two causes. First, the only major leverage at Barack Obama’s disposal, cancelling the annual $1.3 billion in aid that Washington gives to the Egyptian army, is no threat at all. It would instantly be replaced, and probably increased, by the rich and conservative Arab monarchies of the Gulf that heartily approve of the Egyptian army’s coup.

Secondly, Washington remains transfixed by the notion that its alliance with Egypt is important for American security. This hoary myth dates back to the long-gone days when the US depended heavily on importing oil from the Gulf, and almost all of it had to pass through Egypt’s Suez Canal. Today less than ten percent of the oil burned in America comes from the Middle East, and new domestic production from fracking is shrinking that share even further.

Even if Obama understood that Egypt is not a vital American strategic interest and ended US military aid to the country, it would only be a gesture (although a desirable one). The International Monetary Fund has already broken off talks on a large new loan to Egypt, and the European Union is talking about cutting aid to the country, but there are no decisive measures available to anybody outside the Arab world, and no willingness to act within it.

There will be no major military intervention in Syria either, although outside countries both within the Arab world and beyond it will continue to drip-feed supplies to their preferred side. And the Iraqi government’s request last Friday for renewed US military aid to stave off renewed civil war there has no hope of success. Getting involved again militarily in Iraq would be political suicide for Obama.

So what’s left of the Arab spring? On the face of it, not much. Tunisia, where the first democratic revolution started three years ago, still totters forward, and there is more democracy in Morocco than there used to be, but that’s about it. The non-violent democratic revolutions that have worked so well in many other parts of the world are not doing very well in the Arab world.

There may be many reasons for this, but one stands out above all the others. In the Arab world, unlike most other places, two rival solutions to the existing autocracy, poverty and oppression compete for popular support: democracy and Islamism. The result, in one country after another, is that the autocrats exploit that division to retain or regain power. Democracy may win in the end, but it is going to be a very long struggle.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 7. (“What…all this”)