By KP Fabian*
To understand where Egypt is going, we need to look at its recent history. The 1952 Revolution led by Col Nasser saw Egypt rid itself of the monarchy subservient to the UK that dominated Egypt even after granting independence in 1922. However, that revolution did not take Egypt in a democratic direction. Col Nasser, the most charismatic leader in the Arab world, ruled till his death in 1970. He was succeeded by his colleague Anwar Sadat who ruled till he was assassinated in 1981. Hosni Mubarak who succeeded Sadat ruled for almost thirty years till he was overthrown by the 25 January 2011 Revolution, less than a fortnight after Tunisian President Ben Ali fell from power.
It was the Tunisian revolution that inspired the Egyptians who asked themselves why they could not do what the Tunisians did. When Mubarak fled to Alexandria on the 11 February 2011, the Egyptians at Tahrir Square and elsewhere genuinely thought that it was the dawn of new era of democracy. Egypt’s well-wishers the world over agreed enthusiastically.
Why did the 2011 Revolution fail?
Although Mubarak fell, the military, led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF), grabbed power. The SCAF told the Egyptians that it was assuming power only temporarily and that it would arrange for elections and thereafter hand over power to a civilian government. The people initially believed the SCAF, but soon came to realize that it was in no hurry to relinquish power. Under pressure from the street, the SCAF arranged for elections by the end of 2011; but to its chagrin, the Muslim Brotherhood won a majority.
If the SCAF’s intentions were honorable, it should have withdrawn from the scene and permitted the majority party to form a government answerable to the parliament. Instead, the SCAF held on to power and months later when it was clear that a candidate of the Brotherhood was likely to win the second round of the presidential elections, the SCAF, with the collusion of the higher judiciary, got the parliament dissolved citing flimsy technical reasons. Furthermore, the SCAF saw to it that the new President, Mohammed Morsi, was without any powers associated with his office. The SCAF retained control over the budget and even legislation by colluding with the higher judiciary ever prepared to rule that Morsi’s decrees were null and void.
In August 2011, Morsi sacked Gen Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s defence minister, and chairman of the SCAF, and replaced him with Gen Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the chief of military intelligence. Little did Morsi know then that in approximately ten months, Gen el-Sisi would carry out a military coup.
Morsi resorted to some imprudent actions to regain his legitimate powers. He was unaware that the intelligence and security set-up, the higher judiciary, and the higher bureaucracy, were part of a Deep State led by the SCAF that had never accepted him as president. Morsi was unable to improve the economy, create jobs, and make the police respect the rights of the people.
The Deep State watched with increasing satisfaction as the discontent and anger of the people mounted, and secretly funded and guided a new movement called Tamarod (Rebellion). Demonstrations against Morsi grew increasingly larger as he was about to complete his first year in office on 30 June 2013.
Gen el-Sisi issued an ultimatum to the president to talk to and reach a settlement with his opponents. They obviously refused to talk to Morsi and on 3 July 2013, Morsi was kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed destination giving rise to the worst fears among the Brotherhood followers who began protests for Morsi’s restoration. The security forces used as much violence as possible to put down the protests. In one case, they fired at unarmed and peaceful protesters at Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, killing at least eight hundred. That killing was similar to the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India by the then British administration in India, but with one difference. Gen el-Sisi’s propaganda machinery convinced a good part of the population that the killing was necessary in order to save Egypt.
Egypt Under el-Sisi
Ten months later, Gen el-Sisi, by then elevated to the rank of a Field Marshal, contested in the election and got elected with an overwhelming majority. He promised to revive the economy and to restore security. He has signally failed on both counts. The security situation is bad and earnings from tourism have plummeted. Egypt is facing a serious economic crisis. The IMF has agreed to lend $12 billion over three years if Egypt carries out reforms, primarily devalue currency and cut down subsidies. Gen el-Sisi has done both and the 40 million Egyptians below the poverty line are suffering from inflation. For instance, the price of sugar has shot up by 300 per cent.
Egypt is heavily dependent on financial support from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Over the past two years, Saudi Arabia had pumped in $26 billion, but by voting for a Russian resolution on Syria, Egypt offended Saudi Arabia, which stopped the supply of subsidised crude oil. Earlier, in April 2016, Gen el-Sisi had announced with much fanfare that the two Red Sea islands (Tiran and Sanafir) would be handed over to Saudi Arabia. Months later, the judiciary invalidated Gen el-Sisi’s decision. This shows that the Deep State solidarity is fracturing.
Criticism of Gen el-Sisi is growing louder and he has lost his image of a saviour. But, in the absence of any alternative, Gen el-Sisi does not risk any serious challenge to his position because, at the moment, those who have the courage to protest are either in jail or in exile.
* KP Fabian
Former Indian diplomat, & Professor, Indian Society of International Law