Over the last year, deep turmoil has hit the Arab world. Since Tunisian fruit vendor Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in December 2010, the regional landscape has undergone seismic shifts. Tunisia held free and fair elections and is doing relatively well. Libya is emerging from a civil war that invited NATO military intervention to topple the regime of Muammar Gadhafi. Syria and Yemen are both mired in domestic violence. And, since the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has proved a mixed picture.
Despite recent elections, which signified an important step toward Egypt’s democratic transition, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) has refused to transfer power to an elected civilian body, representing one of the greatest impediments to democratic consolidation. The SCAF has been undemocratic, and the military has garnered criticism for human rights abuses reminiscent of the Mubarak-era. Since February 2011 human rights organizations have noted the arrest and conviction in military tribunals of hundreds of peaceful protesters for alleged “thuggery,” continuing to use a decades-old and unpopular emergency law. In October 2011, 20 Coptic Christians, a religious minority in Egypt, were killed and hundreds more were tortured. In addition, censorship and the curtailing of press freedoms have reached alarming rates. The generals’ political maneuverings to preserve the subordination of civilian leadership, namely through the protection of their budget from any form of oversight or scrutiny, has revealed the SCAF’s political ambitions evocative of the Turkish model. The military’s refusal to cede authority and return to their barracks is deeply worrisome.
Results for the parliamentary elections to the People’s Assembly of Egypt held from November 28 to January 11 signals another unsettling picture. Islamist parties swept approximately 70 percent of the 508 seats in parliament. The debate has now shifted from one between Islamists vs. seculars/liberals, to one between the Muslim Brotherhood (37.5 percent of the vote) and Al Nour’s Salafi party (27.8 per cent of the vote). A populist Islamist government, which will be strongly influenced by the Salafis’ ultraconservative interpretation of political Islam similar to in Saudi Arabia, could taint the nascent Egyptian democracy with illiberal tinges, since their intentions are still unclear.
The economic situation in Egypt is also parlous. The Egyptian tourism industry has taken a serious hit since January 2011. The Egyptian pound has lost ten percent of its value. Foreign currency reserves are dwindling. Foreign investments have deterred manufacturing and industry. And Egypt’s stock exchange lost billions just this last month. Only when political stability is achieved will the costs of revolution prove their worth.
The conflict between Egypt’s generals, who refuse to cede power and subordinate themselves to a civilian authority, and Islamists, whose liberal democratic credentials are dubious, is the grimmest facet of the last year since Egypt’s uprising began. Despite the specter of instability and chaos, Egyptians should view favorably the gains of the first freely elected parliament in decades and Hosni Mubarak’s trial, which is characteristic of the application of the rule of law. Moreover, deep divisions have emerged between and within the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Nour Party, suggesting that moderates in Parliament might be able to keep them in check. Al-Nour has recently expressed its commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli 1979 peace treaty, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s moderation has been remarkably astute.
– Jaïs Mehaji