Ruminations on Egypt

Egypt is at the polls today, in the second day of the presidential elections. It’s unlikely that one candidate will win an outright victory though, so there will probably be a final runoff vote sometime in the near future. Nearly a year and a half after the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, it’s interesting to look back and consider who has benefited most from the ‘revolution’.

SCAF, the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces, is the military council currently running the country. After Mubarak resigned on 11 February last year the army stepped in. While there has been some opposition to their rule, it seems that most Egyptians accept the army acting in a caretaker capacity. The real question is to what extent the army will be willing to ‘go back to the barracks’ after they hand over power to a new president. While few believe that the army wants to continue running the country, it also seems unlikely they will want to give up the autonomy which they currently enjoy. Of particular interest is the percentage of the country’s economy controlled by the army. It’s impossible to gauge accurately as it is considered a state secret but estimates suggest up to 40 percent. The army owns land, roads, factories and resorts and maintains these holdings with no oversight. This is a serious obstacle to true democratic governance and economic reform, but it’s unlikely that the generals will be eager to hand over the control of these assets to a civilian government.

Elections have already been held for the upper and lower houses of the Egyptian Parliament and Islamist parties won around 75 percent of the vote. The Muslim Brotherhood took nearly half the seats and the Nour salafist party around a quarter. Egypt’s liberals, who claimed to have started the revolution are a clear minority. The forerunning presidential candidates are also either Islamists or members of the ancien regime. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh is a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who claims to represent liberal Islamists. Mohamed Morsi is the Muslim Brotherhood’s own candidate, put forward after their first choice was rejected on technical ground. Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq were officials in the former Mubarak regime and as such are referred to as foloul – remnants – by those who wish for a clean break from the past or who fear their close connection with the army.

For the young liberal revolutionaries who claim to have instigated the uprising, this is obviously a disappointment.

“They have stolen the revolution from us.”

since arriving in Egypt this is a refrain I have heard repeated often by liberals aghast at the ‘sudden’ popularity of Islamist groups. In fairness, there is some truth in what they say. The Muslim Brotherhood didn’t initially support the uprising last year but have since portrayed themselves as protectors of the revolution, positioning themselves strategically as a buffer between protestors and SCAF, avoiding having to come down one way or the other. Then in the lead up to the presidential elections they declared that they would hold protests every Friday until SCAF handed power to a civilian body.

It’s important to realise though that these educated middle-class activists were always a minority, and they failed to connect with the wider populace. Much has been made of the social media dimension to the uprisings but the reality is that the young activists who were so adept at mobilising street demonstrations lacked the ability and organisational structure to settle on and campaign for a cogent and appealing set of policies. With its existing organisational structure, the Muslim Brotherhood were much better set to fill the power vacuum in post Mubarak Egypt.

It wasn’t always like this; Egypt has a long history of liberalism. As recently as the 1970s, only a minority of Egyptian women wore the veil. Today it is something around 90 percent. I’m speculating, but I presume the failure of the liberal project is due to the failure of the previous regimes to deliver on their promises. Liberalism never brought Egypt its bright new future.

What of the future? Egypt has traditionally been a moderate country and will most likely stay that way. Forever occupied by foreign powers, Egyptians were gracious hosts, and made a habit of absorbing and assimilating her occupiers. Farming has traditionally been easy and there was always enough food to go around and enough land for its population. No one got too upset by things; there have always been Christians and Muslims living together, and, until recently, a healthy Jewish community (now reduced to a few dozen old people). The Nile flood came every year, distributing silt, watering the land and regulating Egyptian life.

Now, as ever, the moderate Egyptian character is likely to prevail. Yes most people want some form of Islamic government but is that a worry? In all likelihood pressing economic issues will ensure that questions of restricting alcohol or banning mixed bathing at beaches will never get much traction; Egypt needs the tourist dollar too much to risk doing anything that will keep the foreigners away.

Egypt’s population has exploded in the past fifty years or so. Cairo’s population has quadrupled, making it an impossibly crowded city. Getting married and moving into your own home is an increasingly difficult dream for young people. The frustration of unfulfilled potential is palpable in the young men crowding the streets and in the traffic on the roads. With so few opportunities, it’s hardly surprising that Islam is seen as an attractive alternative to getting ahead in the material world.

Another event coincides with the beginning of Egypt’s population bulge; the building of the High Dam. Today, 90 percent of Egyptians have never seen the Nile flood, an event that regulated Egyptian life since the time of the pharaohs. Things have changed in Egypt, but it’s too early to say how.


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