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Egypt: End Game

20 June 2012

Egypt: End Game

By Gwynne Dyer

“If we find that Scaf (the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stands firm against us as we try to fulfill the fulfill the demands of the revolution,” said Fatema AbouZeid of the Muslim Brotherhood as the final results of Egypt’s presidential election last weekend rolled in, “we will go back to the streets and escalate things peacefully to the highest possible level.”

“Now we have a new factor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian people themselves…” she continued. “(They) will not accept a return to the old regime in any form, not after so much Egyptian blood was shed to remove it.” Well, maybe.

There’s nothing like an election to make things clear. Now all the cards are on the table in Egypt, and the last round of bidding has begun. The army has opened with a very high bid in the hope of scaring everybody else off, and now the other players have to decide whether to call or fold.

Sometimes, even in long-established democratic states, the players simply fold in order to avoid a destructive constitutional upheaval. That’s what the Democratic Party did when the United States Supreme Court awarded the state of Florida and the presidency to George W. Bush in the disputed election of 2000.

It was an outrageously partisan decision by the 5-4 Republican majority in the Supreme Court, but if the Democrats had rejected it the United States would have faced months or even years of political turmoil. If they had foreseen the devastation that the Bush presidency would cause they might have done otherwise, but at the time their decision seemed wise.

It is possible that the Egyptian “opposition” – a uneasy amalgam of the secular and leftist young who overthrew the dictator Hosni Mubarak on Tahrir Square sixteen months ago and the Muslim Brotherhood (which initially avoided direct confrontation with the old regime) – will also just fold. After sixteen months of upheaval so many ordinary Egyptians just want “stability” that the army might win a showdown in the streets.

 

The problem is that the Egyptian army has bid much higher than the US Supreme Court ever did – so high that if the other players fold they lose almost everything. This is a brazen bid to revive the old regime minus Mubarak, and restore the armed forces to the position of economic privilege and political control that they have enjoyed, to Egypt’s very great cost, ever since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952.

On 14 June, just 48 hours before the polls opened for the second round of the presidential election, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court announced that last year’s parliamentary election, in which Islamic parties won almost three-quarters of the seats, was conducted by rules that contravened the constitution.

There was a legitimate question about whether the political parties should have been allowed to run candidates in the seats reserved for independents. No, said the court, all of whose judges were appointed by the old regime. But rather than just ruling that there must be by-elections in those seats, they declared that the whole parliament must be dissolved.

This bizarre decision presumably meant that the 100-person constituent assembly created by the parliament to write Egypt’s new constitution was also dissolved. The army still swears that it will hand power over to the new democratically elected president on 30 June – but he will now take office with no parliament and no constitution to define his powers.

Might there have been some collusion between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Supreme Constitutional Court in this matter? Is the Pope a Catholic?

Last Sunday, only three days after the Court handed down its judgement and just as it was becoming clear that the old regime’s candidate, Ahmed Shafiq, would probably lose the presidential election, the Scaf issued an “interim constitutional declaration”. It effectively gives the military legislative powers, control over the budget, and the right to pick the committee that writes the new constitution.

Since that committee will not report until the end of the year, in the meantime there will be no election for a new parliament. There will be an elected president, but he will not even have authority over the armed forces: the army’s “interim constitution” strips him of that power, and no doubt its tame committee will write it into the new permanent constitution as well.

The Scaf can’t have come up with all this in just 72 hours after the decision of the Supreme Constitutional Court on the 14th. There had to be a lot of coordination between the military and the Court beforehand. You could call this a “constitutional coup,” but the more accurate phrase is “military coup.” So what can Egyptians do about it?

They can go back to Tahrir Square, this time student radicals and Muslim Brothers together, and try to force the army out of politics. That will be very dangerous, because this time, unlike February of last year, the generals may actually order the soldiers to clear the square by gunfire. Or the opposition, aware that the mass of the population has no appetite for more confrontation and instability, may just submit and hope for a better day.

If it does that, the Egyptian revolution is dead.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2, 5 and 10. (“Now…maybe”; “It was…wise”; and

“This…powers”)

 

Mubarak on Trial

3 August 2011

Mubarak on Trial

by Gwynne Dyer

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was wheeled into court today in a hospital bed (his lawyers claim he is very ill), and put into the same kind of iron cage that so many of his opponents were tried in before they were jailed or hanged. The charges are corruption and ordering the killing of protesters during the Egyptian revolution last February.

If convicted of the latter charge, he could face the death sentence, but he is unlikely ever to dangle at the end of a rope. Some 850 Egyptian protesters were killed during the revolution, but the kill orders were probably never written down, and it will be very hard to prove Mubarak’s personal responsibility for the killings.

No matter. He is 83 years old and in poor health, so even a few years in prison would be effectively a death sentence. This trial is not about the fate of a few wicked men. (Mubarak’s sons and seven close associates are also on trial.) It’s about a new Egypt where the law must be obeyed even by the powerful.

It’s the fact that the trial is taking place that matters, not the severity of the punishment. But given that the soldiers are still in charge, most Egyptians are still stunned to see it actually happening.

It was the Egyptian military who intervened on 11 February to force Mubarak to resign from power and end the killing. Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi heads the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that serves as an interim government pending free elections in Egypt. But the Egyptian army has never been a hotbed of democracy.

Tantawi, 75, was personally close to the deposed dictator. Mubarak is a former general himself, and the military do not like to see one of their own humiliated in public. There has also been great pressure from the surviving Arab autocracies not to have a former ruler put on trial.

Most Egyptians therefore never expected to see Mubarak on trial in open court, but the military have their own interests to defend. During 57 years of thinly disguised military rule they have built up an enormously lucrative presence in housing complexes, banking, and all sorts of other non-military activities. They also get a huge share of the country’s budget.

The country’s senior officers realise that they have to make a deal with at least some of the civilian political forces in post-Mubarak Egypt if they want to keep their privileges. Putting Mubarak on trial is a down-payment on that deal – but who are their prospective civilian partners? A lot of the young people who actually made the revolution happen suspect that it is the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was slow to come out in support of the revolution, for it had an unwritten deal with Mubarak that allowed it to operate as a sort of unofficial opposition (as long as it didn’t challenge his rule). It has put down deep roots in the poorer sections of Egyptian society thanks to the very effective social services it provides. Its leaders are middle-aged and elderly men of a conservative disposition.

The young men and women who actually brought Mubarak down, on the other hand, are overwhelmingly secular in their views. They want a free press and real respect for human rights. So which group would the military prefer to deal with?

If there were an election in Egypt today, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Muslim Brotherhood’s new political front, would probably win more votes than any other party. We’ll know by next month, because there is actually going to be an election in Egypt in September.

Paradoxically, it is the liberal, leftist and radical political groups that want to postpone the election, because they too believe that the Brotherhood will triumph if an election is held this year. But it would be just the same next year. Over a third of Egyptian voters are illiterate, and at least half are very poor. The Brotherhood was there to help them over the long years when the State wasn’t.

Behind crowd-pleasing gestures like Mubarak’s trial, the military may have already cut a deal with the Brotherhood: the latter will dominate the new parliament, and in return they will leave the military’s privileged position alone.

The Brotherhood in power would do some things that the military would not welcome, like breaking relations with Israel and imposing an Islamic constitution on a country with a ten percent non-Muslim minority. But if accepting such policies is the price they must pay to defend their own privileges, the military will pay it.

So is the Egyptian revolution going to be betrayed? In part it will be, at least for a while; all revolutions are. But this is a long game, and a wise player might prefer not to take power in Egypt right now. The economy is a wreck, popular expectations are extremely high, and there will be severe disillusionment when the new, democratically elected government fails to work miracles.

It might be better to aim to win the election four years from now, when today’s victors have become tomorrow’s villains. Whether that’s a good strategy or not, it’s probably the only viable option for the secular parties.

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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 12 and 14. (“Tantawi…trial”; “Paradoxically…wasn’t”; and “The Brotherhood…pay it”)

Israel: When Mubarak Goes…

6 February 2011

 Israel: When Mubarak Goes…

 By Gwynne Dyer

 In his first public comment on the unfolding drama in Egypt, Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, worried aloud last week that the right analogy may be the Iranian revolution of 1979: “Our real fear is of a situation…which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself, repressive regimes of radical Islam.”

 The non-sectarian, non-party protesters in Egypt who have driven President Hosni Mubarak to the brink of resignation, suggests Netanyahu, may lose control of their revolution just as the Iranians lost theirs to the ayatollahs. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that is particularly strong among the poor, might gain a dominant position in the new Egyptian government.

 The Muslim Brothers have always condemned the peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel thirty-two years ago, so they serve as a sort of shorthand in Israeli politics for the nightmare scenario in which Egypt cancels the peace treaty. In fact, you don’t even need the Muslim Brotherhood to make the scenario credible: a majority of Egyptians dislike the treaty and would like to see it cancelled

 Cancellation of the peace treaty would not necessarily lead to war between Egypt and Israel. It’s not even likely to. It would certainly cause a huge rise in Israeli military spending, but the threat that a post-Mubarak regime would pose to Israel is more political than strictly military. As, indeed, is the threat from Iran.

 The Iranian regime has never attacked any other country, but it does support the Hizbollah organisation in southern Lebanon, whose militia fought the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. The Hamas movement, a Palestinian party modelled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, could become equally formidable militarily with support from Cairo.

 Hamas already controls the Gaza Strip, which shares a border with Egypt. With Egyptian backing, it might also overthrow the Palestinian Authority that currently controls the West Bank, for that body has been discredited by its corruption and its long collaboration with Israel.

 Even without a war, therefore, an elected Egyptian government would greatly compound Israel’s security problems. Hamas could end up in control of all the occupied Palestinian territories, and Jordan would have great difficulty in preserving its own peace treaty with Israel. No wonder Binyamin Netanyahu is concerned.

 But Netanyahu’s own policy, which boils down to avoiding serious negotiations with the Palestinians and hanging onto the West Bank indefinitely, is not sustainable in the long run. Palestinians are already moving towards the view that no “two-state” solution is possible, and that the right strategy is to accept the unity of all of the former British mandate of Palestine.

 The Israeli army effectively unified all of that land in 1967 and has dominated the Palestinian-majority parts of it ever since. But the Palestinian birth-rate is considerably higher than the Jewish population growth rate, even though the latter benefits from massive immigration, so the day is not far off when Arabs will outnumber Jews within the old borders of mandatory Palestine, i.e. all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

 When that day arrives, say the proponents of the “one-state” solution, Palestinians need merely demand the vote throughout that territory, and Israel as we know it will be finished. It will become a civil rights issue in which Israel is cast as a new apartheid regime, and support for it will drain away even in the United States. Significantly, this is already the implicit strategy of Hamas.

 If a new Egyptian government adopts this policy, Israel will not just have a bigger security problem. It will face an existential problem, albeit one that will only play out over several decades. What can Netanyahu (or any Israeli leader) do to avoid this outcome?

 There is going to be a new Egyptian government very soon. It will probably not be dominated by the Muslim Brothers, at least in the early days, for they cannot claim credit for the revolution. So there may still be a window of opportunity in which an Israeli offer to allow a Palestinian state on all the land beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders could revive the “two-state” option.

 It is unlikely to remain open for long, however, and it is hard to see how the Israeli electorate could be persuaded to jump through it in time. Netanyahu, given the character of his governing coalition, certainly could not do it, and it’s not clear whether any other coalition of Israeli parties could either.

At a time when bold steps are called for, Israeli politics is effectively paralysed. But then, it has been effectively paralysed by the settlements issue for several decades already, and most of the time available for implementing a “two-state” solution has already been wasted.

 Given that the emergence of two legitimate and universally recognised states in former Palestine, the larger of which would be Jewish, should be Israel’s main security goal, it has been extraordinarily negligent of its own interests.

 And now it may be too late.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 15. (“Hamas…Israel”; and “Given…interests”)

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.