Stealing the Arab Spring
Well, it was too good to last. The dream of a democratic Middle East has run into the stony wall of reality, if not totally shattered. After a dream run that has seen four of the most powerful men plucked out of their mighty citadels even as they desperately fought back to hang on in there at any price, the Arab Spring seems to be encountering some real rough weather and nasty storms.
One year on, the diabolic doctor in Damascus is trying hard to outshine his late father in spreading sweetness and light as an uncaring, indifferent world stands and stares. Things haven’t been going smooth in Tunisia and Libya either with the conservatives, the new leaders, facing off the remnants of the old order. However, it is Egypt, the land where it all began, which remains the center stage of this all-out battle between the old and the new. The sweeping measures taken with characteristic stealth over the past few days by the generals, who effortlessly stepped into the chaotic void left behind by Mubarak’s departure portraying themselves as the selfless guardians of the republic and the revolution, have sparked fears that the junta has stolen the Arab Spring.
A tumultuous week of the military’s machinations has wiped away most of the democratic gains made in the past one year, underscoring the malevolent power of what some Egyptian analysts choose to describe as the ‘deep state’, a term once reserved for Turkey’s shadowy elites holding back the country’s democratic aspirations and Islamic soul.
No one expected Egypt’s generals who have directly or indirectly ruled the country for six decades to happily fade away into the night after transferring power to a civilian dispensation, thank you very much! There had always been apprehensions of a power grab by the men in khaki even at the height of the Tahrir Square agitation. The young and restless of Egypt and even the more seasoned Islamists, however, decided to keep their peace and give the military a chance in the interest of a smooth and peaceful transition from dictatorship to democracy.
With stars in their eyes and fond hopes in their hearts, Egypt’s naïve revolutionaries trusted the military with the future of their revolution and that of their nation. They went home in the confidence that the military had changed with the rest of the country and would act in the national interest. The men in khaki however have always had only one overriding interest – their own. And their interest lies in the perpetuation of the status quo— the tyranny and all-round corruption that have been eating into Egypt’s vitals all these years.
So even as a triumphant Muslim Brotherhood was claiming victory in the presidential elections this week, the generals unveiled a new Constitutional Declaration at a press conference granting themselves sweeping powers and clipping the wings of the incoming president. For starters, the new president will have no power and control over the army. He will also have no power over Parliament, which has already been scrapped only five months after it came into being. Indeed, the new president will have little power over anything beyond the walls of the presidency. On the other hand, the self-appointed military council will have total control over all legislation and virtually all arms of the state. Yet the junta insists that it’s not interested in keeping power and will transfer it to a civilian government by the month end.
On Thursday, two days before the presidential runoff, the military had the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolve the Parliament elected in the first credible polls held after Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood had swept the elections, taking control of the Parliament and setting the cat among the pigeons. For good measure, the military council headed by Gen. Hussain Tantawi, Mubarak’s long-time friend and defense minister, also suggests that the new president elected after such fanfare could very well be for a short term as a new constitution, being drafted under the watchful eyes of the army, would demand a new president!
So that’s that. Egypt is back to square one — or so it seems. Having enjoyed unlimited, unquestionable powers all these years and controlling more than 30 percent of the economy, the military cannot countenance conceding its control over levers of power. A Brotherhood takeover of the presidency after its capture of Parliament is the ultimate nightmare for the generals and their patrons in the West. An assertive and independent president could put an end to the long decades of abuse of power and institutions, besides making the army accountable to the Egyptians, not foreign masters.
Sixty years ago when Gen. Mohammed Neguib went to see off King Farouk on the royal yacht after deposing him in a bloodless coup, the monarch had a word of advice to the new leader. “Take good care of the army,” said the king known for his love of good life. “You know, it’s not easy to govern Egypt.” Neguib, who along with his comrade in arms Gamal Nasser led the first post war revolution, replied: “Don’t worry. The army and Egypt are in good hands.”
And Egypt has remained in the good hands of the generals ever since. The Egyptians and many around the world thought that things had changed with the Tahrir revolution. But clearly the more things change in Egypt, the more they remain the same.
So Egypt may at last have a new democratically elected leader but he will be little more than a puppet in the hands of the military council. As had been the case for decades in Turkey, the military establishment with its numerous arms, security agencies and vested interests will continue to call the shots, no matter who is chosen by the people of Egypt. If this isn’t a mockery of people’s choice and their epic sacrifices offered all these years, especially over the past year, what is?
Egypt is at a tipping point. The generals are playing a dangerous game, which could have disastrous consequences not just for the country but the whole region, considering the pivotal nature of Egypt in the Arab world.
If the Egyptians have to make a fresh start as a nation and rediscover their pride of place, the army will have to return to the barracks. They didn’t challenge Mubarak’s rule only to be saddled with the junta. The people have spoken and everyone must defer to their verdict. Else those who threw out the last pharaoh are capable of dealing with his courtiers.
Where does the West stand in all this? This week, warning the generals against a power grab, US Secretary Hillary Clinton said: “There’s no going back in Egypt!” Let’s hope Washington practices what it preaches. Who pampered and protected the regime in Egypt and for that matter elsewhere in the neighborhood all these years is hardly a secret. You don’t have to look too far to see the consequences of messing with people’s choices. The civil war in Algeria that broke out following the stealing of people’s mandate in 1991 polls claimed nearly 200,000 lives. Egypt’s generals cannot be allowed to steal the Arab Spring.
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based commentator.
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