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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”)

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

28 July 2013

Egypt: Worse Than a Crime

By Gwynne Dyer

Two massacres committed by the Egyptian army in one week. At least 130 people killed in the streets of Cairo for protesting against the military coup. It is worse than a crime (as the French diplomat Talleyrand remarked when Napoleon ordered a particularly counter-productive execution). It is a MISTAKE.

It is also a crime, of course. The killing has been deliberate and precise: only trained snipers could produce so many victims who have been shot in the head or the heart. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Adly Mansour, the tame president he has installed, tell the kind of lies that generals and politicians always tell when this sort of thing is going on, but the reports of the journalists on the scene leave no room for doubt: this is murder.

But it is, above all, a mistake. When the army fulfilled the demands of the anti-government demonstrators in Tahrir Square on 3 July by overthrowing the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, after only a year in office, it must have known that his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood would protest in the streets. And it must have had a plan for dealing with those protests. Soldiers always have plans.

The simplest plan would be just to wait the protesters out. The Muslim Brotherhood could put large numbers of people on the streets, but at least in Cairo even larger number of people would go to Tahrir Square and support the coup. Use minimum force, contain the demonstrations by both sides, and wait for people to get bored and go home.

In the meanwhile, push on with the process of rewriting the constitution to remove the Islamic bits inserted last year by Morsi’s party and hold a new referendum to ratify it. By the time fresh presidential and parliamentary elections are held early next year, the Muslim Brotherhood will presumably have found more modern and moderate leaders to replace Morsi – and in any case the secular parties will win the election.

Was this really General Sisi’s scenario for the future when he overthrew Morsi’s government? Perhaps: the army’s moderate behaviour in the first week after the coup could support that hypothesis. But it wouldn’t have taken long for the soldiers to understand that things were unlikely to work according to plan.

The problem was not so much the imprisoned president’s refusal to legitimise his overthrow by cooperating with the military, or the tens of thousands of peaceful pro-Morsi demonstrators camped out in the streets. Morsi’s non-cooperation was predictable and so were the pro-Morsi crowds, but his supporters were patient and peaceful. Wait another month or so, and most of them would probably go home.

In this scenario, the turning point would have come when Sisi or his advisers finally realised that the Muslim Brotherhood could wait it out too. Whatever the intervening process, if the Brotherhood was really free to run again in the promised election next year, it might win again. That would be catastrophic for the army’s very privileged position in Egypt – so the Brotherhood had to be excluded from politics.

That is a charitable take on the army’s motives. The likelier explanation, alas, is that Sisi planned to ban the Brotherhood from the start. Democracy be damned: the “deep state”, that permanent collusion between well-fed Egyptian soldiers and bureaucrats and the foreign military and commercial interests who feed them, is making a come-back. And the political idiots on Tahrir Square are cheering it on.

Either way, the army’s political project now requires the massive use of force: the supporters of the Brotherhood must be driven from the streets, by murder if necessary, and its leaders must be criminalised and banned. And other political idiots, in Washington, London and Paris, are going along with that too.

President Barack Obama is uncomfortable with what is happening, but he won’t call it a coup because then he would be obliged to cut off $1.5 billion a year in aid to the Egyptian army. Instead, he calls it a “post-revolution transition”, and promises that the United States will be a “strong partner to the Egyptian people as they shape their path to the future.”

His loyal sidekick William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary (also known as “Tonto”), asks the Egyptian authorities politely to refrain from violence because “now is the time for dialogue, not confrontation.” ‘Fraid not. Now is the time for murder, and foreign democrats are holding the murderer’s coat.

Egypt is the biggest Arab country by far, and so long as the democratic revolution prospered in Egypt you could still say that the “Arab Spring” was changing things for the better, even despite the calamity in Syria. But it’s very hard to see how the Egyptians can find their way back from where they are now.

Even worse, the Egyptian coup is stark proof that political Islam cannot succeed by taking the democratic path. The message it conveys to devout Islamists all over the Arab world is that Osama bin Laden was right: only by violence can their political project succeed. Thanks a bunch, General Sisi.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 12. (“The problem…home; and “His loyal…coat”)

End of the Arab Spring

7 July 2013

End of the Arab Spring?

By Gwynne Dyer

If the people in charge of the various opposition parties in Egypt had any strategic vision, they would not have launched the mass protests that caused the army to oust President Mohammed Morsi on 4 July. They would have bided their time and waited for the next election. Because there is probably still going to be a next election in Egypt, despite the coup, and now the Muslim Brotherhood might actually win it.

There is a good deal of chatter in the media at the moment about the “end of the Arab Spring,” some of it by commentators who can barely conceal their delight. Egypt, with almost one-third of the world’s total Arab population, was the great symbol of the democratic movement’s success, and now Egyptian democracy is in a mess. But the drama still has a long way to run.

Morsi is now under arrest, as are many other leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the passionate demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the streets of Egypt’s cities make it hard to imagine that any compromise is possible. Indeed, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin warned last weekend that Egypt risks stumbling into a civil war like the one that has devastated Syria.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, justified the military coup by claiming that it had been the only alternative to civil war – which could, he said, have been as bad as Somalia. Really? One suspects that he doesn’t know much about Somalia. Indeed, one suspects that he doesn’t really know much about his own country either (he has spent most of his career abroad).

There was no risk of civil war in Egypt before last week’s military intervention, and there is no risk of civil war now either. What we are seeing is a no-holds-barred struggle for power between rival political movements, in a system where the political rules are newly written, hotly disputed, and poorly understood. And all the players have made some serious mistakes.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the basis of last year’s 51.7 percent majority for Morsi in the presidential election, assumed that it had the unquestioning support of half the population. This was probably not true.

Many voted for Morsi in recognition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s long resistance to six decades of military dictatorship. Others voted for him in gratitude for the Brotherhood’s unfailing support for the poor, or in disgust at the fact that Morsi’s only opponent in the second round of the election was a left-over from the Mubarak regime.

Perhaps as few as half of them actually voted for the Brotherhood’s core project of Islamising Egyptian law and forcing its own version of Islamic values on Egyptian society – but the Brothers seemed to think they all had. Even if that had been true, trying to impose fundamental changes on a country with the support of only half the population was not wise.

Some of the constitutional changes that Morsi imposed, and some of his tactics for pushing them through, may actually have been the result of political compromises within the Brotherhood, where he constantly had to fend off the fanatics who wanted even more extreme measures. Nevertheless, the secular opposition parties inevitably saw him as an extremist, and genuinely feared that he would somehow manage to force the whole package on Egypt.

So the secular parties responded with extra-constitutional tactics of their own: mass demonstrations that were explicitly intended to trigger a military take-over that would sideline Morsi and the Brotherhood. In only four days of demos, they succeeded, in large part because the army, a resolutely secular organisation, had its own grave misgivings about where Morsi’s government was taking Egypt.

But the army hasn’t actually seized power. It has appointed Adly Mansour, the head of the Constitutional Supreme Court, as interim president, with the task of organising new parliamentary and presidential elections. It will not be possible to exclude the Muslim Brotherhood from those elections without turning the whole process into a farce – especially since the Brotherhood will probably be going through some changes of its own.

The Muslim Brotherhood took little part in the 2011 revolution, and the men at the top, including Morsi, were utterly unprepared for power. They are now likely to be replaced by a younger generation of leaders who are more flexible and more attuned to the realities of power. They might even win the next election, despite all Morsi’s mistakes this time round.

That’s the real irony here. If the opposition parties had only left Morsi in power, his unilateral actions and his inability to halt Egypt’s drastic economic decline would have guaranteed an opposition victory at the next election. Now it’s all up in the air again.

But democratic politics is far from over in Egypt. Foolish things have been done, but the Arab Spring is not dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 3 and 4. (“Morsi…abroad”)