6 Feb 2011

Winners and losers in Cairo

Who are the winners and losers in Egypt’s ongoing political battle, asks Krishnan Guru-Murthy, as protesters remain in the square and talks continue.

Are their hopes being dashed? Have they been out manoeuvred by the wily old Pharoah and his (with apologies for metaphor mixing) henchmen? It would be easy to get depressed about seeing a revolution quelled. For that is what seems to be happening: the Egyptian regime seems to have the upper hand with the protesters largely contained in the square, people going back to work and political opposition choosing to negotiate. But the revolutionaries have not lost. Not yet.

In just two short weeks they have extracted massive change: the end of Mubarak Junior’s ambitions to succeed his father, the opening up of the political system and effective end of emergency powers that made the Muslim Brotherhood illegal. They have ensured for now that the bulk of the army will not turn their tank weapons on the people, and they have exposed the tyranny of the secret police. Even the Government feels it has to praise the “brave boys in Tahrir Square” – with senior ministers admitting the change they have forced is for the better. They have won the moral victory perhaps, with many practical outcomes.

But it is not revolution. Many of the same figures from the past will survive. The Vice President Omar Suleiman who looks like a possible successor to Mubarak (or at least a transitional figure) is a man of the old regime. As intelligence chief he ought to have known if there were any renditions of terror suspects and dodgy interrogation techniques by Egyptian agents. What then did he know of the domestic security services and their tactics? And without mature political parties for the young people leading the protests who will represent them in the elections? Already their inability to nominate leaders is slowing their progress into a sophisticated political force from protest movement. And Mubarak is still in place, despite the new profile of Suleiman.

So it is no surprise that the Government is starting to believe it has won too. People who a week ago may have feared for their lives now still have their jobs, drivers and homes. It could yet flare up beyond control, but right now it doesn’t feel very likely. They feel they have shown Egypt is no tin pot dictatorship, but rather a mature country capable of change within the constitution.

Who has lost? The elites who thrived on the old regime, who made millions from it and stand to lose their positions of advantage. Britain and America have not emerged smelling of either roses or power. The Washington zig zag (one minute it’s “we need to see some change now”, the next it’s “these things can take time”) and Britain’s “we’re not telling you what to do but we’re a bit worried about Islamists” line have gone down very badly with all sides in Cairo. They neither sided with the kind of pro-democracy uprising they yearned for in Iraq nor supported their long time ally Mubarak. So both are cross.

And Israel should obviously be nervous about whatever emerges from this : for whether most Egyptians support the Mubarak position on Hamas and Israel is deeply questionable. If they get a bigger say in politics the Israeli relationship will change – even if it isn’t a catastrophic change it could be deeply uncomfortable for Tel Aviv.

It is too soon to say for sure, but perhaps the other losers will be other revolutionary movements in the Middle East. The Egypt experience, while traumatic for the elite, has also shown mass movements are slowable if not stoppable. A mass uprising doesn’t then have to lead to a secret night flight to Saudi exile for the autocrat. But I suspect a few of them won’t be sleeping well while they try to work out if they are more akin to Ben Ali of Tunisia or Mubarak of Egypt.

So who’s winning? Everybody. Who’s losing? Everybody’s doing that too.