Sitting on a powder keg
Our planet is a perfect creation yet human beings seem out to destroy it along with each other. As someone who has grown to love this ancient fertile land, I would like nothing more than to witness its blossoming. But, sadly, it’s a garden without a gardener, wilting daily from lack of water and in danger of being strangled by weeds. Cairo, in particular, has lost its luminosity. The burned and blackened National Democratic Party building scars the elegant Corniche el Nile. The landmark former Nile Hilton, taken over by the Ritz-Carlton, is a shell in the process of being renovated. The once glossy Nile dinner boats require a lick of paint and tents still sprawl over the center of Tahrir Square. Unfortunately, Egypt’s parliamentarians are new to the game. They spend much of their time discussing laws that would allow them to marry off their daughters at age 14 and hang on to their wives by stripping women of their current right to initiate divorce. Rather than find ways to boost the fragile economy and ensure law-and-order, they debate female dress codes, rant about elusive gas bottles and moan about prices in the vegetable souks. Even those who voted for them aren’t impressed.
On May 23 and 24, Egyptians will go to the polls to choose their president. There is no shining star among the candidates. The two front-runners are 75-year-old former Arab League head Amr Moussa, a consummate diplomat, and 60-year-old Dr. Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a doctor who used to be a bigwig in Muslim Brotherhood and has since softened his message to appeal to young liberals and young Islamists alike. A strange turn of events has led to Fotouh garnering the support of the ultra-conservative Salafist Al-Nour Party much to the disappointment of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Other leading candidates include the Chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party Mohamed Morsy who has alienated the youth with his strict socially conservative views and Air Marshall Ahmed Shafik, the last Prime Minister in Hosni Mubarak’s Cabinet, which some believe taints his bid. The problem is that the Egyptian public is so split that no matter who wins the race, the potential for violent demonstrations on the lines of the recent Abbassia clashes is great — and, especially so, when all the candidates are insisting that the army must allow them a free hand and return to its barracks.
Superficially democracy is flourishing. There is vigorous campaigning consisting of giant posters plastered on every main street and trucks hoisted with massive TV screens churning out videos and ear-splitting songs. The owner of the controversial Faraeen channel Tawfik Okasha has pulled out of the presidential race but he’s on air for hours each night wagging his finger at his compatriots for being their own worst enemy, exposing the latest conspiracy theory and luridly warning of all-out war with Western powers within three months. I’d be inclined to chuckle about that one if it weren’t for the news that Pentagon instructors are teaching courses on ‘Total War on Islam’ in military colleges, Hiroshima-type nuclear warfare designed to eradicate the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
For the first time ever the leading contenders went head-to-head in a late night US-style televised debate moderated by well-known journalists. Moussa and Aboul Fotouh both went for the jugular in a good-humored fashion. Moussa painted his rival as a die-hard religious conservative in liberal clothing who’s keen to see Egypt morph into an Islamic state, while emphasizing his own experience in government. “Egypt needs a man who understands the political context in the region and internationally. The country is in a very dangerous position…it needs a man of experience,” he said.
Aboul Fotouh accused Moussa of failing to criticize the Mubarak regime and accused him of being one of Mubarak’s buddies. For what it’s worth polls are currently putting Moussa ahead and most of those I’ve spoken with, from judges and doctors to waiters and taxi-drivers are rooting for him. In recent months, I’ve sensed a shift in public opinion. Many ordinary folk are tired of revolutionary slogans and Million Man marches and are yearning for the kind of stability that someone like Moussa represents. But I wouldn’t bet my house on the outcome because it may be a very different story away from urban centers where Islamist parties hold more sway.
It’s viable that once there is a president at the rudder, the country will settle down and people of all religious/political persuasions will come together to rebuild. But even if that happens, Egypt’s problems are far from over. Statements from Moussa and Aboul Fotouh are making Israelis nervous. Both have pledged to revise the Camp David peace treaty while the latter describes the Jewish state as an “enemy”.
Early this month, the Israeli government, still smarting over Egypt’s cancellation of a long-standing contract to supply Israel with cheap gas, summoned 22 reserve battalions to active duty citing growing threats on its borders with Egypt and Syria. Last month, the Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned Prime Minister Netanyahu that Egypt was more dangerous than Iran. He believes Egypt’s new rulers will violate the peace treaty by positioning large numbers of heavily armed troops in the Sinai and diminish internal pressures by focusing anger on Israel, the enemy. Various Israeli right-wing politicians have been itching to get their hands on the Sinai for decades and are just waiting for a security pretext to go in.
The way ahead for Egyptians is strewn with obstacles; they need a leadership that’s up to the task. As I write, apart from the endless tooting of vehicle horns, everything’s quiet, but I can’t help thinking that this may be the lull before the storm.
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view