18 Jun 2012

Egypt on knife-edge between democracy and revolt

Jonathan Rugman on how the army and the Islamists are uneasy but unavoidable bedfellows in Egypt’s future democracy.

How bad things are in Egypt depends on how you measure progress within the last 24 hours, versus the long list of setbacks.

Firstly, the progress: Egypt appears to have undergone its first ever competitive, free and relatively fair presidential election, with more than one candidate on the ballot. Early indications are that Mohamed Morsi of the once outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has won. If true, this is an extraordinary moment after 60 years of autocratic military rule. The vote count was even shown live on television, though the rival candidate, a remnant of the old regime, is disputing the result, which appears to be close.

Now the setbacks: Egypt’s military council is cutting off Mr Morsi at the knees before he comes anywhere near the presidential palace; last night the council issued a new charter giving the military control over all laws and the national budget, plus control of the process of writing a new constitution; this is on top of the reintroduction of elements of martial law and judges dissolving parliament last week.

The army has the Islamists effectively surrounded and democracy has been postponed, with the supposed handover of power to civilian rule next month now either impossible or meaningless. While one panel of MPs is expected to begin writing a new Egyptian constitution, the army’s own pick of experts could draft a rival version instead.

Some liberals are crying foul on the Islamists’ behalf, and may take to the streets tomorrow against what is described as a “soft coup”; other revolutionaries have no intention of rushing to the defence of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, which has scared women and Christians and shown little willingness to share power with young secularist Egyptians who were in the vanguard of toppling President Mubarak last year.

On the quiet, I suspect many secular Egyptians would rather Islamist power was circumscribed or at least diluted by military men; after all, around half of those who voted did not vote for Mr Morsi.

This may explain why Tahrir Square has not yet filled up with those who began last year’s revolution. The military council itself has said the new president can appoint ministers and veto laws and that it too opposed the dissolution of parliament. “Everyone is blowing this out of proportion,” a spokesman said in an attempt to head off street protests.

As I’ve written before, the army and the Islamists are uneasy but unavoidable bedfellows. To extend the metaphor, the army has pulled the blanket over to its side of the bed, leaving the Islamists out in the cold.  Both parties need marriage guidance (from the Americans, perhaps) so that the bed can be fairly shared.

If it turns out that Ahmed Shafik has won, it may well mean “game on” for the revolution, with Islamists and secularists united in opposition once again. But if Morsi has won, and the army eventually stops pulling the rug from beneath him, that spells an opportunity for a new and more democratic Egypt to emerge. That, at least, is my hope.

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