True to its civilisational significance, Egypt was destined to play a key role once the revolutions of the Arab Spring swept the Middle East.
Egypt is in ferment again with the makings of another movement of the people for restoration of rights, freedom and better governance. It sometimes seems tragic that one of the oldest nations cum civilisations in the Middle East rarely attracts attention in international geopolitics today, except when it is in turmoil.
Egypt once ruled the focus of those who wished to influence the Middle East. At the height of the Cold War, it was Gamal Abdel Nasser and later Anwar Sadat who held sway over its destiny. Firmly embedded in the Soviet camp then, the end of Egypt’s confrontationist policy towards Israel in 1978 also saw the shift of geopolitical focus to other core centres in the Middle East. To understand what is currently happening in Egypt a brief visit to the past is necessary.
True to its civilisational significance, Egypt was destined to play a key role once the revolutions of the Arab Spring swept the Middle East. From Tunisia to Syria, the colour revolutions, as they also came to be known, brought the potential of transformation of Arab society to the doorstep of Egypt.
A 30-year-rule by Hosni Mubarak came to an ignominious end as people took to streets to express sentiment for true democracy, growth without the shackles of government corruption, and freedom.
The advantage that flowed to Egypt from the mature and sensible decisions of Anwar Sadat in 1978; to withdraw confrontation with Israel, compromise for the sake of the people and work towards economic progress, did not fully fructify during the 30 year regime of Hosni Mubarak; this despite every opportunity knocking its door and the US becoming a key ally. Mubarak could not retain Egypt’s position at the high table of Middle East politics as focus shifted to Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Gulf kingdoms.
When the Arab Spring reached Egypt, Tahrir Square became an international people’s symbol of rights and protest. The rising tide of social media in 2011 had its first major mass effect on society as flash mobs appeared out of nowhere, mobilised by Facebook and Twitter account holders outside the government’s gaze. The video feeds and pictures out of Tahrir Square showed the world what influence social media could bring to bear.
Embedded in the confusion of the often violent revolt was Egypt’s other strong entity, the Muslim Brotherhood. Established in 1928 under the leadership of Hassan al-Bana it remained on political sidelines with its radical Islamist oriented ideology.
While being regionally influential throughout the Middle East, the Muslim Brotherhood did not find favour to rule because of the secular nature of Egypt’s society and army. Detaching itself from the people’s revolt once Mubarak was ousted in Feb 2011, it remained well-organised to triumph in the election that followed. People were willing to give a chance to any alternative to Hosni Mubarak. That is how, after waiting for 84 years at the sidelines, the Muslim Brotherhood was electorally empowered to rule Egypt. The man it selected to head the government was Mohammad Morsi. His sheer inexperience and lack of clear agenda and strategy gave its leadership the perception that it could rapidly contest the well-established military whose hold did not dilute.
While visiting Cairo and Alexandria a few years ago and interacting with students and faculty at the Al Ahram and Alexandria Universities, I realised that Egypt, despite its economic backwardness, was culturally rich and essentially plural and secular in outlook. While studying Islamist trends in the Middle East, I concluded that Egypt’s was the last society which could go the radical way. Egyptians democratically chose the Muslim Brotherhood to rule their nation despite its known leanings.
It even received the backing of the US although Saudi Arabia was against it for ideological reasons. Mohammad Morsi had declared his intent to support the revolution and even abide by the Egypt-Israel accord.
Yet, his short rule was marred by the confusion resulting from the refusal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to yield its space, a prevailing perception that the Brotherhood wished to take Egypt down the Islamist path and his attempt to wrest total power from the military. It led to a division with the non-Islamist forces that had initially supported it resulting in the military coup led by General Al Sisi in Jul 2013. With President Sisi attempting to extend his rule with amendments to the constitution that will allow him to rule till 2034, it is also the health of the economy, condition of the people and large scale corruption revealed by the prominent Egyptian businessman Mohammad Ali that have contributed to the sparks of protests in mid-September 2019. Will this be the second coming of the Arab Spring in Egypt?
Access to news websites and social media channels have been restricted by the government. Several pro-government media platforms have attempted to discredit demonstrators. However, what the government fails to realise is the fact that the fallout of the failing economy is driving the people to a new revolt. Western analysts observing Egypt for long say that this time it may not be Cairo or Tahrir square — smaller cities and towns could become the scene of the second coming.
The complexity of Egypt’s political makeup in all manifestations of protest movements has been the dividing line between secularists, Islamists and supporters of military rule. Initial protests could witness political Islam and non-Islamists joining hands for better alternatives of governance but their ability to stay together for the good of Egypt will always remain doubtful. Saudi Arabia will back the military and unlike common perception, it will have little to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. The US ambition of seeing liberal democracy in the Middle East with the start point being Egypt is itself fraught with risk in the absence of credible leadership. The last time it backed the Muslim Brotherhood and failed. Al Sisi’s options are really limited.
As it happens in many cases, he could abdicate and retire to a foreign land leaving the military to once again strong-arm its way under yet another dictator commencing another spiral of misrule. However, at some stage, the people look beyond themselves and could decide to fight this to the end. That stage seems yet far but there remains no doubt that what may happen in Egypt could be the progenitor of events in the Middle East which the people may have long-awaited. That is why Egypt remains important for us to observe, now and in future.