15 Jun 2012

Egypt's unlikely bedfellows: the Islamists and the military

“In Tahrir Square itself the grass has died, and much youthful optimism with it.”

I’m in the ballroom of a smart Cairo hotel, watching the crème de la crème of Egypt’s high society busy kissing one another on both cheeks. This oasis of privilege is expecting a special visitor; Ahmed Shafik, the 71-year-old retired air marshal who served as Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, and who is running for president this weekend.

In fact, two of the dictator’s ex-ministers are also in the ballroom, inhaling the bonhomie and the expectation of success. It is as if Egypt’s revolution, which toppled their boss, had never happened although neither minister wants to talk.

“I promised not to talk about the elections or about anything,” says one.

“Because you worked for Mr Mubarak?,” I ask. His brief silence and stricken look say it all.

Egypt election campaign
Egyptian souk

Mr Shafik eventually appears on stage alongside President Anwar Sadat’s widow, and the daughter of President Nasser, who founded the modern military state, and you get this not-so-subtle message: that Shafik’s the latest in a long line of military men who have always known what is best for Egypt, and who know this involves keeping Islamic fundamentalism under control.

“The people want Shafik!” his supporters chant in a bizarre echo of last year’s cries for freedom in Tahrir Square.  Bizarre because even out of uniform this air marshal is about  as far from last year’s youth-driven revolution as one can imagine.

Another military president: coincidence?

Nasser’s daughter, Mona, tells me that Egypt must not turn into Iran and that it will be a “complete coincidence” should another military man become president.

“The military are not pulling the strings,” she says. “It is the people pulling the strings.”

In one sense, she may be right. Travel up to the capital’s Khan el-Khalili bazaar, and you find plenty of merchants terrified that Islamic fundamentalists will force them in to traditional robes and drive away even more tourists and investors than the revolution already has.

“Shafik is a good manager,” one tells me. “He worked with Mubarak but he is not Mubarak.”

And that, it seems, is enough.

Egyptian voter
Egyptian voter

Others are crying foul and say that even if Shafik is democratically elected, he’s just a front for military rule. At any rate, Egypt’s supreme court – packed with remnants of the old regime – has just dissolved the first freely elected parliament, leaving Islamists wondering if the plan is to deprive them of power permanently.

Yet most interesting of all, Mohamed Mursi, the Islamist candidate for president, has said the court’s decision must be “respected”, something those talking up political turmoil in Egypt may have overlooked.

 Unavoidable bedfellows

For Egypt’s military and its Islamists are unlikely but unavoidable bedfellows; and what we are witnessing, to use another analogy, is a grinding of tectonic plates, as the secular and religious seek some kind of accommodation before they settle down and build this country anew.    

The Islamists may not win this weekend. Mr Mursi strikes me as an uninspiring candidate. At one rally I visited, he cracked only one joke, and it was a bad one about winning no votes in Israel; and if his party cannot turn out the rural Egyptian vote, an urban backlash against the role of sober-suited religious dullards could defeat him.

But if Egypt’s slow and painful transition to democracy is real, then in theory the Islamists could win the presidency next time round, if not this.  Last year’s revolution was above all about ending open-ended dictatorship by one man and his descendants, though for now it hasn’t achieved much else.

In Tahrir Square itself the grass has died, and much youthful optimism with it. The place feels like a rather tacky tourist spot now, with street hawkers fiercely protecting their turf.

Early days

Some are talking of a military coup by stealth, with Shafik winning this weekend as the final fly in the Islamist ointment ; and even if the Islamists are allowed to win, it remains unclear what the military’s promise to hand over power in July really means,  with no parliament and no constitution in place.

Yet while Egypt’s revolution might feel like a mission unaccomplished or indeed deliberately undermined, these are very early days.

The pace of change in neighbouring Libya has led to unrealistic expectations, and Egypt moves at its own, and thankfully less violent, pace.  Slowly, certainly, but hopefully in the right direction nevertheless.

(Watch Jonathan Rugman’s report from Cairo.)

Follow Jonathan Rugman on Twitter @jrug and read more of his reports at www.channel4.com/news .