March 02, 2014

Egyptians Observe Third Anniversary of ‘Revolution’

Yohannan Chemarapally

EGYPTIANS observed the third anniversary of their revolution on January 25 under fraught political circumstances. The last two years had witnessed volatile events, including the ouster of the long ruling authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak and also the first democratically elected president, Muhammad Morsi. Morsi’s ouster had come under controversial circumstances. The violence that followed and the concurrent heavy-handed response from the Egyptian security apparatus has left deep wounds on the Egyptian national psyche. In January, the military backed interim government pushed through a new constitution. The government has claimed that it got a 98 percent approval vote. REMINISCENT OF AUTHORITARIAN RULE The former ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), had called for a boycott of the referendum on the constitution held on January 15-16. The Egyptian government announced that 38 percent had turned out to vote but, even after taking into account the high level of abstention, there were few takers for the claim that there was overwhelming support for the new constitution. The opposition was not allowed to campaign during the run-up to the referendum. It was reminiscent of the decades of authoritarian rule when it was routine for the ruling party to poll 98 percent of the votes in elections and referendums. In a referendum for approval of a previous constitution conducted by the democratically elected government led by the MB in 2012, 67 percent of the electorate had voted in favour. That constitution too had had given a special status to the Egyptian armed forces. Only the army could nominate the candidate for the defence minister’s post and the National Defence Council continued to be dominated by the generals. The MB had bent over backward to accommodate the military and compromise with the old state apparatus. The MB leadership’s sectarian attitude and political missteps during its brief stint in power also contributed to its downfall. Secular groups and the minority Coptic Christians were among those most alienated from the Brotherhood. The aim of the new constitution, approved in January, is to keep the Islamists permanently out of Egyptian politics and further solidify the role of the Egyptian army in the country’s politics. The army has been in charge of the country’s affairs since 1952. The newly minted constitution guarantees the power and privileges long enjoyed by the Egyptian armed forces. The army continues to remain a state within a state. Article 204 of constitution will permit civilians to be tried in army courts. “The constitution will bring us back to the Mubarak regime and his repressive rule in Egypt,” a leader of the left-leaning April 6 Movement told the BBC. The acclaimed Egyptian novelist, Ahdaf Soueif, said that the new constitution was a “red herring” and was a meaningless document given the fact that basic fundamental rights are being eroded. “The only thing that this constitution does is that it legitimises the very powerful and unquestioned position of the army in Egypt today,” she told the BBC. Like many Egyptians which include liberals as well Islamists, Soueif is of the view that the state will indulge in more repression. She said that there was a limit to the tolerance of the people and that another “revolution” was inevitable. A new law prohibits anti-government demonstrations. Amr Moussa, the veteran politician and diplomat who headed the 50 member committee that drafted the new constitution, said there could not be “100 percent democracy” as “there are situations to be dealt with bearing in mind the security of the state and the security of the people.” Many secular and left wing parties continue to back the military junta. The “Tamarod” movement, which was in the forefront of anti-Morsi agitation, and a new coalition called the “Forces for Democracy and Social Justice,” comprising of Nasserite and communist groupings, had issued a call to the Egyptians to come out in their millions to vote for the new constitution and “to deal with the terrorism of the Muslim Brotherhood.” These groups consider the military coup of June 2013 as a “second revolution” against the reactionary and backward looking Muslim Brotherhood. CIVIL WAR THREAT LOOMING LARGE After the approval of the new constitution, violence in the country has escalated further. The security forces have been specifically targeted with a suicide attack on the police central security directorate in the Cairo suburb of Giza. There were bomb attacks in other parts of the Egyptian capital. Both the government and the opposition are gearing up for a long drawn out confrontation. Many experts on the region fear that there will be a protracted civil war similar to the one that occurred in Algeria in the nineties. The Algerian army had staged a coup in 1991 to prevent the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) from taking office. The FIS had overwhelmingly won the first round of elections in the country. That conflict, which lasted more than a decade, resulted in a casualty toll of over 1,00,000. The Egyptian government has threatened to wage a campaign similar to the one waged in the nineties against radical Islamist showing “neither pity nor mercy.” In December 2013, Egypt’s largest party --- the Muslim Brotherhood --- was officially banned for the first time in the 85 years of its existence after being dubbed as a “terrorist organisation” by the interim military backed government. The properties belonging to the party have been confiscated and the assets of its prominent leaders frozen. The Brotherhood run a huge network of charities that include hospitals and educational institutions for the poor. Most Egyptians live on less than two dollars a day and millions depend on the services provided by charity groups. President Morsi and his associates are being tried for sedition and other alleged “crimes of terrorism” against the state. The charges carry the “death sentence.” Interestingly General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was the defence minister under President Morsi. The current interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, also occupied the same post in the Morsi government when the alleged repression and acts of terrorism had taken place. The military backed government has passed a law which could land a citizen in jail for five years just for expressing support for the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB has been careful to distance itself from the recent acts of terrorism and has focussed on leading the “anti-coup alliance” with other parties opposed to the military taking over the reigns of power. The party had issued a statement condemning the recent acts of violence. The Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (Champions of Jerusalem), a new militant group active in the Sinai region, which is sympathetic to Al Qaeda, has taken credit for the recent attacks on the security forces. Since the removal of Morsi from office, more than 1,400 people have been killed. Most of those killed have been protestors demanding the reinstatement of President Morsi. The top leadership of the party is in prison along with 21,000 members. In a report released three days before the third anniversary, Amnesty International said that the violence unleashed by the state had reached unprecedented proportions after the military coup last year. “Three years on, the demands of the ‘25 January Revolution’ for dignity and human rights seem further away than ever. Several of its architects are behind bars and repression and impunity are the order of day,” said Amnesty International’s deputy director for North Africa and Middle East, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui. US, EU AGAIN SUPPORT ARMY Egyptian society and politics is now sharply polarised. About 40 percent of the population, according to a report, firmly supports the military backed government. On the third anniversary of the 2011 revolution on January 25, more than 50 people were killed and more than a hundred injured while staging protests in Cairo and other cities. Most of those killed were supporters of the ousted President Morsi. Secular and left groups have also started opposing the military backed interim government. The government had also organised a big demonstration in Tahrir Square to commemorate the 2011 revolution on January 25. But instead of slogans commemorating the revolution, the huge crowds were heard singing praises of the new military strongman, General El Sisi and calling for the “execution” of the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is evident that the stage is now set for the Egyptian army chief to formally run for the presidency when elections are due later in the year. General Sisi is no longer too coy about his ambitions. He recently said that he would stand for president if there is “a popular demand and a mandate from my army.” Washington, despite some earlier murmurs of protest, now seems ready to recognise the formal re-emergence of the army as the de facto power centre in Cairo. After the banning order on the Brotherhood was issued, the US state department issued a statement voicing its support for an “inclusive political process” and calling for “dialogue and political participation across the political spectrum.” After initially threatening to withhold the annual 1.525 billion dollars aid package to the Egyptian army after the ouster of the democratically elected government, the Obama administration is all set to release the money. Washington seems to have distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. The US Congress has approved of the Obama’s administration’s move. The Egyptian economy is at this juncture not too dependent on American financial aid, as it is being propped up with bountiful aid from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE. The three countries together have pledged more than 12 billion dollars in annual aid. Many Egyptians had initially blamed Washington of supporting the MB after the decision to suspend the supply of F-16s planes for the air force and military spares immediately after the ouster of the civilian government. Egypt has now been exempted from US laws that bar American financial aid for military dictatorships. The Obama administration and the US Congress have chosen to interpret the passage of the new Egyptian constitution as an important step in the transition towards democracy. The European Union (EU) has hailed the constitution referendum as the dawn of a new democratic era. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the approval of the new constitution could open the way for the resumption of political dialogue that would lead “to democratic elections, a fair representation of different political views in the future parliament.” Her statement came after the banning of the MB and institution of draconian media laws.