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Egypt: Sisi, Morsi and Democracy

Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, has now been in prison more than three times as long as he was in the presidential palace, but his death sentence was quashed last week. On Tuesday the country’s highest appeal court also overturned his life sentence on a separate charge – but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be free any time soon.

The appeal court not only cancelled Morsi’s death and life sentences, but also those of sixteen other senior members of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. “The verdict was full of legal flaws,” said Morsi’s lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud. The men will all stay in jail indefinitely, as the military regime can easily get convictions on other charges in the lower courts, but justice is not entirely dead in Egypt.

Democracy IS dead, however. Since General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s coup destroyed Morsi’s elected government in July 2013, at least 1,400 Egyptians have been murdered by the regime. (That includes the thousand people who were killed in the streets in August 2013 while non-violently protesting against the coup – a massacre at least as bloody as the Tienanmen Square slaughter in Beijing in 1989.)

The army was never going to accept the non-violent revolution that overthrew former general Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-old regime in January of 2011: its officers benefit greatly from its control over at least a quarter of the Egyptian economy. But the military had the wit to bide their time, whereas the young revolutionaries were neither experienced nor united, and they quickly began making mistakes.

Their worst was to fail to unite behind a single candidate in defence of a secular democracy. Instead, the presidential election of July 2012 ended up in a run-off between Air Chief Marshal Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last prime minister, and Mohammed Morsi, the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood. Enough secular voters held their noses and backed Morsi to give him a narrow victory in the second round.

The Muslim Brotherhood was a moderate Islamic party that had been tolerated under the Mubarak regime. Its main supporters were conservative rural voters and the pious poor, and it felt obliged to reward them by inserting more Islamic elements into the new constitution. Besides, Islamists really believe that making the country more “Islamic” will solve its problems. That’s why they are Islamists.

It was far from wholesale Islamisation, but it was enough to panic the urban and mostly secular young people who had led the revolution. In a stupid attempt to force the new constitution through, Morsi granted himself total executive power and began ruling by decree in November 2012. After ten days he realised he had made a dreadful mistake and relinquished his special powers, but it was too late.

In an equally foolish reaction, the young revolutionaries concluded that Morsi was a dictator in the making and began agitating for an early election to get rid of him. They simply didn’t understand that the democratic solution was to wait the full four years and then vote Morsi out. By then, given the state of Egypt’s economy, he would be so unpopular that he would be certain to lose.

Some even thought that the army was their friend and would help them to get rid of Morsi. So the anti-Morsi demonstrations grew through the first half of 2013, and on the first anniversary of his election on 30 June millions came out in the streets to demand that he quit. The army moved at last, and in days Sisi was in power and Morsi was in jail.

In due course, many thousands of the young revolutionary generation were also in jail: the latest estimate is 60,000 political prisoners. The Sisi regime is far more brutal and repressive than any of its military predecessors, but its plans to welcome foreign investment, privatise the infrastructure and restrict the right to strike have lots of foreign support.

Last year the regime held a national coming-out party at the Sharm al-Shaikh resort: the Egyptian Economic Development Conference. It invited 1,700 investors, consultants and foreign government officials including the US secretary of state, the British foreign minister, and the head of the International Monetary Fund. They were pleased by what they heard..

Former British prime minister Tony Blair was also there. “Look,” he burbled, “I’m absolutely in favour of democracy, but I also think you’ve got to be realistic sometimes about the path of development, and that sometimes you will have a country with not what we would call 100 percent Western-style democracy, but it is going in a direction of development that is really important.”

Far away from the conference hall, however, tens of thousands of innocent people rotted in jail, and real terrorists affiliated with Islamic State and al-Qaeda ruled over northern Sinai and regularly set off bombs in Cairo.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 12. (“Former…important”)

Class Struggle in Thailand

20 January 2008

Class Struggle in Thailand

By Gwynne Dyer

The Thai army hasn’t the faintest idea what to do next.

Sixteen months ago, after weeks of anti-government demonstrations by opposition party supporters in Bangkok, the military overthrew the elected government of billionaire Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, accusing him and his wife of corruption. They put in a former general as interim prime minister, promised a swift return to democracy, and set about rewriting the constitution to give themselves a bigger permanent role in politics. They also raised the military budget sharply, presumably as a reward to themselves for saving the country from Thaksin.

For a while, things went well. The coup was popular at first, at least in Bangkok. Last May the military regime got the courts to order the dissolution of Thaksin’s party, Thai Rak Thai, and to ban 110 of its senior officials from taking part in politics for five years. But the economy stumbled, and Thai Rak Thai simply re-formed as the People Power Party (PPP). When the promised election to return the country to civilian rule was held last month, the PPP won.

It didn’t get quite enough seats to rule alone, but it has now formed a coalition with five other parties that gives it a comfortable majority of about 315 members in the 480-seat parliament. Thaksin’s party is back in power, and he says that he will be back in Thailand by April. (He has been living in self-imposed exile, claiming that he could not get a fair trial on the corruption charges while the military were still in power.)

In the meantime, the PPP is being led by Samak Sundaravej, who openly says that he is Thaksin’s proxy. Thaksin has said that he does not want to return to power, but the new government will be taking his advice on a daily basis, and he could always change his mind. All of which poses a problem for the soldiers who overthrew him in September, 2006, but what is going on in Thailand is not really a military-civilian power struggle. It is a struggle between the city and the country.

It was only Thaksin’s great wealth that enabled him to rise so fast in politics, for he was not a member of the traditional political class. The country’s politics has long been dominated by a Bangkok-based elite that had close ties to the bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy. Local political bosses in the provinces delivered the peasants’ votes in return for cash and favours, but Thailand was governed by and for the urban middle class.

Thaksin, the great-grandson of a Chinese immigrant, came from the north of the country, and made his money in mobile phones. He was the ultimate outsider, and when he won the 2001 election (the cleanest in Thailand’s history), he really upset the insiders.

He started spending the government’s money on the villages where the majority of Thais still live: everything from a debt moratorium for farmers to micro-credit, better schools, and above all universal health-care. During his five years in office the proportion of Thais living in poverty dropped by half, and health insurance even became available to the country’s two million foreign workers. But of course this meant diverting some money from the traditional concerns of the urban middle class.

The Thai economy grew strongly through all this, allowing Thaksin to pay off the country’s debt to the International Monetary Fund two years early. He was always a populist and sometimes an outright demagogue. He had a nasty authoritarian streak that came out in actions like his “war on drugs” that saw 2,700 people killed in seven weeks (the police deny that they were operating death squads, but then they would, wouldn’t they?) and his clumsy and brutal attempts to quell the insurgency in Thailand’s three mostly Muslim southern provinces. But he won the 2005 election with an even bigger landslide than 2001.

Was he corrupt? Not by the very low standards of traditional Thai political practice, if only because he was too rich to need to steal. Thailand’s traditionally dismal rating on the corruption indexes maintained by various international organisations actually improved on his watch. But then in September, 2006, to the great joy of the Bangkok middle class, he was overthrown by the army.

Now that military intervention has been decisively rejected by the electorate, and the successor to the party that Thaksin created is coming back to power. The poor have spoken, and it will be difficult for the military to ignore what they have said. Real politics has reached Thailand at last.

What will happen next is a series of mini-crises, as the army and the middle class struggle to come to terms with the fact that they have lost control of the country. It may even blow up into a major crisis and a new military intervention. But it is much more likely to end up with a permanent change in the nature of Thai politics. The country is leaving the “South-East Asian model” — military interventions, downtrodden peasantry, elite dominance — and moving towards the welfare-state style of democracy that prevails in most of the developed world. And a good thing, too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“It was…class”; and “The Thai…2001”)