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Limits of people power

The outcome of the struggle in Egypt will resonate in the Arab world

Written by Ranjit Gupta |
September 16, 2013 1:28:55 am

The outcome of the struggle in Egypt will resonate in the Arab world

Catching the virus from Tunisia,hundreds of thousands of people spontaneously spilled into the streets of Cairo on January 25,2011,demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old autocratic dictatorship. The Muslim Brotherhood climbed on to the bandwagon 10 days later,but somewhat tentatively. The army opted to remove Mubarak from office on February 11,2011. Instead of quickly moving towards a civilian dispensation,it started ruling directly through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). People were back in Tahrir Square,demonstrating against them. The army was forced to organise elections.

Despite the Brotherhood’s unparallelled ability to mobilise supporters and its soft pedalling of its assertive Islamic persona during the election campaign,in the first round of the presidential elections in 2012,the voter turnout was a modest 46 per cent. Mohamed Morsi secured only 24.78 per cent of the votes. The Brotherhood’s electoral fortunes had declined since the parliamentary elections a few months earlier. Later,only 32.9 per cent of the electorate voted in the referendum on the new constitution drafted by the Islamists. An underwhelming 63.8 per cent approved it. These percentages were a clear indicator of the popular mood. They should have prompted caution and introspection rather than celebration.

The Brotherhood suddenly found itself catapulted to the position of ruler,a dramatic departure from its traditional role as agitator,insurgent and opponent. It failed to capitalise on this historic opportunity,choosing to push its Islamist agenda,for which people had almost explicitly denied a mandate. Morsi’s whimsical and increasingly autocratic rule ignored a steeply declining economy. This resulted in crowds,significantly larger than the anti-Mubarak ones,demanding his ouster.

All this indicates that despite a huge majority of Egypt’s population being Muslim,people want good governance rather than an Islamic state. People had not got rid of Mubarak and later the SCAF to live under an Islamist dictatorship. They want true democracy. Raw “people power” had won three times,against heavy odds,indicating that the country’s political landscape has changed dramatically.

Assembling impressive support from civil and political society,Egypt’s army chief,General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced the removal of the Morsi government on July 3 and a road map for transition to an elected government within the next nine months. A revised constitution is being drafted. The army is clearly calling the shots. Large posters showing al-Sisi with Gamal Abdel Nasser are ubiquitous in Cairo. There is growing suspicion that the army intends to wield power for the long term,but this time behind a civilian façade.

Following Morsi’s ouster,sit-in protests by Brotherhood supporters elicited a brutal army crackdown and retaliation by protesters. The transitional administration has announced its intention to revoke the Brotherhood’s registration as a non-governmental organisation. This is a particularly retrograde step. Even though the Brotherhood behaved irresponsibly while in power,its presence in the country’s political landscape provided legitimacy to the democracy movement. Sending it underground would radicalise huge numbers of people. Political Islam cannot be put back into the bottle.

Both the army and the Brotherhood have played a tactical game to gain the upper hand. Both have used and then sidelined the common people. Egypt is now witnessing a no holds barred contest between Muslims and Islamists — unprecedented for a Muslim country. The outcome holds profound implications for the Arab world.

Given the deepening divides,the uncertainty of the army’s intentions and of public responses,continuing instability is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. For Egypt’s sake,the international community needs to support whatever stand the people take. It is too big for foreign powers to get intrusively involved,as they have in Libya and Syria.

Saudi Arabia,the UAE and Kuwait seem delighted at the overthrow of the Brotherhood. They have promised $4 billion each as aid. The Saudi foreign minister has pledged to plug the gap,should Western countries suspend or cancel their economic and military aid.

Other countries pleased with the outcome are Bahrain,Iraq,Israel,Jordan,Russia and Syria — many of these are adversaries otherwise. Al-Sisi sent Assad,who has been the major gainer,a return gift by expelling the Syrian National Alliance from Cairo. Turkey and Tunisia have been strongly critical. Iran has been equivocal. Hamas,Qatar and Turkey are the biggest losers. Western countries have repeatedly called for Morsi’s reinstatement but have little leverage to make that happen.

There is nothing that India can say or do that will have the slightest impact on developments. Making any substantive statement or taking sides would be counterproductive. Like that great third world behemoth,China,India’s ministry of external affairs has made a judiciously anodyne statement,calling for all parties to exercise restraint. Nothing further is necessary.

The writer,a retired IFS officer,served as head of the West Asia and North Africa division at MEA.

express@expressindia.comThe outcome of the struggle in Egypt will resonate in the Arab world

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