Monday, February 18, 2013

Second anniversary Egypt’s Arab Spring: Ominous signs

10 FEBRUARY, 2013
M. Serajul Islam

The second anniversary of the Arab Spring in Egypt that fell on January 25th was not an auspicious one. Instead of warmly celebrating the end of dictatorship and flowering of democracy, Egyptians saw riots in the streets where more than 50 people were killed by the security police for demonstrating against the government. Egyptians who are not supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) led government that constitutes a significant part of the country’s population are shuddering at the prospect of the ghost of the Mubarak era returning. Outside Egypt those who had expected Egypt’s Arab Spring to usher in democracy not just in Egypt but to become a tsunami for the region’s absolute rulers are worrying if Egypt’s tryst with democracy is becoming still born.

The ominous developments surrounding the second anniversary of Egypt’s Arab Spring are still evolving although the worst seems to be over for this time. It has claimed so far over 50 lives in the hands of the same dreaded police and security forces that had terrorized all sections of Egyptians under the Mubarak era; the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic forces as well as those that are fighting them now, the liberals, the Christians and others who were not supporters of the Mubarak regime. These forces have been at odds with the MB after the latter reneged on its promises not to contest the Presidency after they had helped it win the parliamentary elections in November, 2011-January, 2012.

Later their differences sharpened when the MB started to go alone in exercising power that came to them when their candidate Mohammad Mosri became the President in an election he won marginally (51.7% against 48.3%) against the candidate backed by the liberals/Christians, supporters of the Mubarak regime and the military  in June 2012. The new President activated the parliament that the military/judges had annulled on technicality. He also succeeded in removing the powerful Defense Minister and Army Chief Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi together with senior officers of the armed forces that made his presidency look better in public perception. The President also was able to earn USA’s admiration for his role in resolving the Israel-Hamas conflict as well as in the region where he backed the USA against Syria.

President Morsi ran into conflict with his opponents when he hurried the draft constitution through a constituent commission where his Brotherhood members and the Islamic groups in parliament were the architects after his secular/Christian and other opponents stayed from participating in the commission. The President adopted the draft constitution in the face of the protests of his opponents who went to the streets over it, claiming that it was not drafted with due consideration to the secular and multi-cultural roots of the Egyptian society. One reason to hurry the draft through was to beat the deadline that was set by the judges.

The President argued that unless he had adopted the constitution before the deadline, the commission would have ceased to exist and the process of adopting the country’s constitution would have been inordinately delayed. He also argued that the people would have the right to accept or reject the constitution in a referendum to which the draft was placed on December 15th. The draft was approved in the referendum by 67% of the votes cast but its credibility was dented because only 30% of voters turned out to vote thus making the support for the referendum only 20% of the actual voters of Egypt. Additionally, to add to the discontent of his opponents, Mohammed Morsi assumed powers that set him above the law that many claimed had given him powers no less than the discredited President Mubarak.

Thus by the time the second anniversary arrived, the politics of Egypt was highly charged with sentiments against the government of President running very high. Egyptians not belonging to the camps of Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic groups were up in arms against the government, demanding that the constitution adopted by the referendum be scrapped. In the week of the second anniversary, a court in Suez passed death sentences on 21 for the “soccer deaths” of last year that added fuel to the fire. Riots erupted in 3 cities, Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, three cities critical to Egypt as these are located on the side of the Suez Canal.

The President clamped emergency for a month in these 3 cities, called in the military and the police and security. The army remained calm and professional and also assisted the opponents of President Morsi to demonstrate. The police and security forces were different and they showed the same mindset that they had done during the Mubarak era and killed over 50 demonstrators/rioters. Nevertheless, the army whose powers remain deeply entrenched, and in the current turmoil keeping its distance, showed its concern over the latest disturbances when the Army Chief and Defense Minister (under both the Mubarak era constitution and the newly adopted one, the Army Chief automatically becomes the Defense Minister) warned about the possibility of “collapse of the state” that gave rise to serious worries in Egypt and abroad that Egypt’s Arab Spring was being derailed.

There is no doubt that President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have made serious mistakes, many arising out of their inexperience as well as their impatience to establish their authority on Egypt’s government.  Although the move to hurry through the constitution caused the perception that the Brotherhood would enshrine its ultra Islamic agenda in it; in reality the new constitution does not include any such contents. There is nothing like governance according to Shariah law in the constitution that many had feared. The discarded constitution had grounded Egyptian law in the “principles of Islamic law”. The new constitution has grounded Egyptian law in the “principles of Sunni Islamic law.”  

Nevertheless, independent analysts who have studied the new constitution closely have concluded that the dissatisfaction of the opponents to the new constitution is based less on ideological issues. They feel that while the MB could interpret the constitution’s reference to Sunni Islamic law to take the country to the right, the language is also flexible enough to argue for individual rights too. The new constitution guarantees Islam, Christianity and Judaism freedom of worship but is silent on the other religions. Women’s rights have also not been specifically guaranteed. The new constitution also calls upon the state and society to uphold family and moral values causing concern that such ambiguity could “open the door for vigilante pressure from self appointed moral guardians. The military’s position is the new constitution has been retained unchanged as was in the discarded constitution.

The way the MB handled the task of writing the constitution, endorsing it and then sending it to referendum caused apprehension among the MB’s opponents   because they were afraid that it would impose its ultra-conservative agenda on Egypt. The decision of the President to assume powers above the law as well as declaration of emergency and calling the military and the hated policy/security forces to quell the riots and disturbances  that resulted in  deaths further accentuated  apprehensions that the new regime was following the path of President Mubarak’s absolute rule. However, on analysis of the new constitution, a lot of the apprehensions of the opponents that it will be ultra-conservative in contents do not appear to be well grounded.

Most importantly, the regime has demonstrated that it is willing to compromise and learn from its mistakes. The President Mohammed Morsi has relented on his decision to assume powers above the law. When the opposition had taken to the streets during the recent disturbances, the President had offered to sit and discuss with them to find a way out of the impasse. In fact, the MB has so far shown enough indication to find out the democratic way out of Egypt’s current political problems. As the cliché goes, it needs two to tango. Egypt’s opposition must show the spirit of negotiations by withdrawing from the streets and talking with the Government. Meanwhile what Egypt is seeing at the moment are the pangs of the birth of democracy for the Arab Spring has ensured that Egyptians have overcome their fear of power of the autocrats and their democratic yearnings cannot any longer be subdued by force.

The writer is a retired career Ambassador and Chairman, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies, CFAS

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