Egypt: What Happened To the Cradle of Civilisation?

Egypt: What Happened To the Cradle of Civilisation?


[symple_box]Driss El Machkour Driss El Machkour is a Moroccan-Canadian Policy advisor and researcher for the MENA region. He holds a Master’s in Labour Policies and Globalisation from the Berlin School of Economics and Law, A post-bachelor’s Common Law degree from the University of Moncton, Canada and License de Droit Privé de l’Université de Fes. He worked with the ILO office in Cairo, Egypt. [/symple_box]

Shaima El Sabbagh with her son in Alexandria, then on her way to lay a wreath of flowers in Talaat ElHarb Square, then being helped by others after being shot, moments before her death.
Shaima El Sabbagh with her son in Alexandria, then on her way to lay a wreath of flowers in Talaat ElHarb Square, then being helped by others after being shot, moments before her death.

Toronto, Canada- Couple of weeks ago, Shaima El Sabbagh, an Egyptian young activist and mother, fell under the bullets of the security forces in Cairo. The gut-wrenching pictures of her slow death made headlines around the world from Le Monde in France to the iconic New York Times. Her only crime: wanting to lay a wreath of roses in honour of those who gave their lives in Tahrir Square during the Egyptian revolution.

When I visited Egypt for the first time in late 2011, I witnessed a country full of hope. People felt proud of being Egyptian again after three decades under the Mubarak regime and its martial laws. I was constantly being reminded of the endearing “Misr Oumou Dounia” when Egyptians described their country as the cradle of civilisation. After all, the January 25th Revolution was young and spirits still high.

Four years later, thousands have been killed along with a reported 40 000 political prisoners. So where did Egypt go wrong? To fully grasp this on-going tragedy, one has to take a brief look at Egypt’s trajectory and the role of the military in shaping the Egyptian society.

“The Military and the People Are One”, Or Are They- Ever since the 1973 war between the Arab states and Israel, in which Egyptian forces breached their siege and crossed the “impenetrable” Suez Canal, the Egyptian military under Sadat engineered a myth-like image for itself which helped boost its morale after the humiliation of the 1967 defeat. Then Camp David Accord of 1979 came which enabled Egypt to recover Sinai in exchange for the recognition of Israel as a state. The Carter-brokered accord has transformed Egypt in unimaginable ways. Not least of them, the assassination of Sadat by sympathizers of the then-banned Muslim Brotherhood. By the same token, the peace deal also relieved the Egyptian military from the specter of having to face the better-trained and well-equipped Israeli army. Well-wishers at the time, including Carter, hoped the Accord would usher a new era of peace in the region and an opportunity for economic development, particularity in Egypt which needed it the most.

Without an anchored democratic tradition where the troops are consigned to their barracks and defend the nation’s borders in times of need, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) turned its eye to the economy and became a di-facto executives’ boardroom for “Egypt Inc.” Over 30 years of Mubarak rule, the military had been pervasive in virtually every aspect of the Egyptian economy; ranging from imports and exports, to real-estate and manufacturing. Some even argue that a substantial chunk of Egypt GDP output is under direct control of the army. It is no secret that some of the biggest public, and some private companies, while fronted by civilians, are held in large stakes by the military.

SCAF vs. The Revolution: “The Wolf Guarding The Sheep- Mubarak fall following mass protests in Tahrir Square would not have been complete without the “blessing” by the SCAF generals. In their cost-benefit analysis they chose to sacrifice one of their own so that rest of the institution could survive and thrive. It is true that Mubarak epitomized the ills of bad governance in Egypt, but he was one spike, albeit the dominant and most visible, in the wheel of the faceless SCAF. So after throwing the old embattled friend under the bus, the SCAF promoted its self as the revolution caretakers. Some activists were able to see through the SCAF underhanded agenda and warned against it, the majority of Egyptians however felt a revolution-fatigue per se. After all, Mubarak and his entourage were put in jail, awaiting trial for killing protesters and corruption charges-Tahya Tawra (Long-lives-the-revolution). The leaderless revolution movement had simply been outmaneuvered by the generals. To make matters worse, the Muslim Brotherhood, who initially stayed out of the fray, saw through this vacuum an opportunity to accomplish their age-old goal to establish a religiously-inspired state. Only this time, the hard work and sacrifice had been done by the more secular youth activists.

Democracy’s Tough Choices- After two years of political instability, daily protests and military repression, presidential elections were held. Not surprising, none of the candidates truly represented the youth who triggered the revolution, yet interestingly they all managed to claim it as their own; including Baradai (Former IEA head), Moussa ( Former Arab League director), Sabahi ( Left-leaning former parliamentarian), Morsi ( Muslim Brotherhood) and Shafiq (Close Mubarak ally and his former minister). After the first round of elections, Egyptians ended up with two unlikely candidates on the ballot, namely Shafiq who represented the defunct-regime and Morsi- the islamist. To the majority of Egyptians who cared about bred, freedom and social justice, the choices could not have been more inadequate, they were caught in between the proverbial rock and hard place. During this time, the media role to fuel polarisation of Egypt during this time could not be underestimated. Conspiracy theories ran wild between Morsi’s desire to conspire with Qatar and Turkey to establish an Islamist Caliphate and Shafiq’s plans to collaborate with the Americans and even the Israelis to bring back Mubarak. After a tense and protracted campaign, Morsi was declared a president with by a thin margin.

The Muslim Brotherhood at the Helm- Despite Morsi’s official resignation from the Muslim Brotherhood as a gesture to rally Egyptians under his presidency, he declared his government policies to be inspired by religion as much as possible. During his first days in office, Morsi realised that his immediate challenge was not a matter ideology, it was rather the economy. After two years of political instability, tourism as Egypt’s main revenue has dried out. The incessant strikes crippled other sectors of the economy. Saudi and Emirates, the traditional donors, immediately ceased financial any aid to undermine Morsi who represented an ideological threat to their version of political Islam; fortunately for him, Qatar came the rescue with a fresh injection of cash. Qatar aspiration by its Emir to transform the small country into a major regional political player explained its gesture; even at the cost of alienating traditional allies in the Gulf region.

Morsi’s handling of the economy proved its limitations as power cuts continued to affect Egyptians due the energy shortages. Long line-ups at petrol stations were a daily usual sight. It is fair to say that after the revolution, the state apparatus cadre appointed under Mubarak remained intact for the most part. Notorious for their traditional hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, the old-regime remnants did not hesitate to deploy the state resources to undermine Morsi; aided by the right-leaning media with its rancorous criticism for the newly-elected government. To make matters worse, the defeated Shafiq’s loyalists intensified their daily protests. Morsi was also challenged by the judiciary’s Supreme Court whose members were nominated under the defunct Mubarak regime. Morsi’s early demise was trigged when he issued a presidential decree which enabled him to circumvent the Supreme Court on certain matters. The latter declared the decree unconstitutional. As a result, some of the Egyptian media outlets dubbed Morsi the new Pharaoh. By then all conditions were ripe for new waves of protests which openly called for the removal of Morsi, by the military. The elected president’s political inexperience helped rally both the Mubarak loyalists with revolution activists who felt their revolution had been high-jacked. Counter-protests followed by Morsi’s loyalists who waved the banner of Shareaya (legitimacy through elections). Over the course of several weeks, protests and counter-protests brought the country to a state of paralysis.

The SCAF, which a year ago reluctantly acquiesced to Morsi who dismissed its former chief, seized the opportunity to regain political relevance. Sissi who was nominated by Morsi as a moderate general, went on the air to threaten the president with an ultimatum to resolve the crisis or to face the consequences. The president defiantly reminded the SCAF that he was the legitimate president. Shortly after the deadline elapsed, the military deposed the president who was placed under detention in a non-disclosed military base.

Coup d’état or Revolution: version 2-After deposing Morsi, the SCAF handpicked a government led by Adly Mansour, a civilian, with Sissi as the Interior minister. Needless to say that Sissi was the di-facto leader of the government which started its crackdown on Morsi supporters in Rabbaa Square under the banner of tackling the threat of terrorism. Now that the military found its way back on the political scene, never has Egypt seen a similar show of force against civilian protesters, not even by Mubarak brutal standards. Morsi’s loyalists camped by the thousands for months in Rabaa Square. The military had issued an ultimatum for them to disperse, failing of which they will be forced out. True to its word, the military advanced on the protestors camps during the early hours of that day. The number of killed among the protesters is still disputed between over-a-thousand by the Muslim brotherhood and around 800 by the military. In either case, with many hundreds killed, that day will be remembered as one of the bloodiest in Egypt’s recent history. In addition, the military-backed government went on a campaign aimed at curtailing the freedom of press and movement. A draconian curfew was imposed. “Unfriendly” Independent journalists were arrested; many television channels were taken off air and their journalists prosecuted. Even international correspondents did not escape from arrests under trumped up charges.

The Muslim Brotherhood which a year only ago won the presidential elections under Morsi, was declared a terrorist organisation, its leadership jailed and its assets seized.

The Military’s Own 360-degree Revolution-After deposing Morsi, the new chief in Cairo, Sissi, went on the air to assure the sceptics among Egyptians that he had no desire to become a president. According to him he had to intervene to save the country from the threat of plunging into the abyss. Most Egyptians however thought otherwise. They had been used to seeing ex-generals reign over them as kings-for-life: the Nassers, Saddats and Mubaraks; not without the customary state-manufactured elections with the invariable outcome: namely 95% plus of the votes. Slowly but surely, Sissi had had a change of heart of becoming a president. Assured of his victory ahead, he did not see the use to present a proper campaign platform other than the fight-terrorism-and-bring-back-Egypt-to-its-glory-days mantra. Most of the opposition parties boycotted the elections, along with the Muslim Brotherhood. Sissi won the presidential elections virtually unopposed, barring Sabahi’s failed second try. In keeping with the tradition, Sissi won by 96.91 percent of the votes.

Opportunity Cost- Egypt had the opportunity of becoming the largest democracy in the Middle East and North Africa; had it not been for a multitude of factors which worked against it, ranging from the ubiquitous military and Mubarak cronies, to Morsi’s inexperience and ideological leanings. Like the rest of the Arab world, Egypt rendezvous with democracy has not arrived yet. Democracy is not a quick process, not is it about ballots and elections. It is long and arduous work, nurtured by informed participants of their rights as citizens, as well as their obligations towards the public good. It has been long argued that the correlation between illiteracy rates and the democratic deficit in developing countries is too strong to ignore. Some go further to elevate that correlation to causation. In other terms, uninformed subjects are the very reasons despotic rulers thrives. Undeniably as every socio-political phenomenon goes, the democratic deficit is too complex to attribute it to one single cause. There are external actors at play as well. Unlike the principled speeches by the Global North praising the benefits of democracy, realpolitik takes over when real interests are threatened. Politics are often marketed as a win-win by some, but backroom wheeling and dealing often result in a zero-sum game for others. Tunisia’s experience has been so far the most lucid in the region. Despite a difficult start, Tunisians are learning the ups-and-downs of the democratic exercise. Should the Tunisians hopefully succeed, the mould would be broken.

Meanwhile, the General-turned-President is going around the world promoting Egypt fresh democracy. To him, “denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.”

[symple_box]Driss El Machkour Driss El Machkour is a Moroccan-Canadian Policy advisor and researcher for the MENA region. He holds a Master’s in Labour Policies and Globalisation from the Berlin School of Economics and Law, A post-bachelor’s Common Law degree from the University of Moncton, Canada and License de Droit Privé de l’Université de Fes. He worked with the ILO office in Cairo, Egypt. [/symple_box]