When the Arab Spring’s fresh breeze touched Egypt’s shores, it gave rise to expectation of far-reaching changes that would not only usher in democracy in a hitherto authoritarian state, but also be a catalyst for changes in other Arab states.
Admittedly, much has been achieved — the despised dictator has been ousted and parliamentary and presidential elections held. There is every reason for Egyptians to feel gratified at their country’s remarkable successes, for it has travelled a long way from the time when Hosni Mubarak and his sons presided over a corrupt and repressive regime.
And yet, developments over the past months have raised fresh concerns, both within the country and among Egypt’s friends abroad. President Mohamed Morsi — given his past political association — was already viewed with some reservation. But just when it appeared that he may succeed in gaining wider national acceptance, he went for an ugly power grab by issuing a decree that gave him unprecedented powers. He did back off under public pressure, but pushed through a contentious Constitution that has divided the country, polarised society and galvanised opposition to him, which fears that the president is fulfilling the Muslim Brotherhood agenda.
What has deeply upset the democrats are some of the Constitution’s provisions, which would indicate a not too subtle marriage of convenience between Morsi and the Armed Forces leadership. Many of the perks and privileges that the military had been enjoying for decades on an informal basis have been incorporated in the Constitution. These include exemption from parliament’s oversight of the defence budget, establishment of a National Defence Council stacked with generals and the power to try civilians in military courts. In other words, the military’s ‘guardianship’ over critical aspects of policy has been sanctified in the new Constitution.
This has led many to suspect that the Muslim Brotherhood and the military high command may have even entered into an alliance. This impression was strengthened by the military’s signals of acquiescence with the strong-arm tactics used by Morsi’s supporters against the opposition. What may explain this attitude? Is it on account of the military’s diminished powers, especially after Morsi’s dismissal of senior generals? Or is it because the military is convinced that Morsi will make such a mess of the country’s economy that popular sentiments will ease their way back to power? Most Egyptians, however, believe that the discredited military recognises that the Muslim Brotherhood remains the best organised political party, enjoying support even amongst the soldiers. It was, therefore, willing to sacrifice some of its seniors to preserve its institutional powers, so as to bide time to recover its prestige. In return, the military has been able to retain virtually all its Mubarak-era powers, which would indicate that the generals’ gamble in ousting Mubarak and thereafter manoeuvring to prevent any curtailment of its powers has succeeded. Of course, if Morsi continues to make a mess of things, the military will inevitably recover much of its old influence.
In the past weeks, there have been references in Pakistan to the “Egyptian model” as a panacea to our ills, primarily because many Pakistanis have been so disillusioned by the government’s widespread corruption and poor governance that they are willing to throw out the baby (democracy) along with the bath water (the government). This is, however, a misreading of the situation. There may be common factors between Egypt and Pakistan but our historical development and nature of our states could not be more dissimilar. The country has already suffered enormously from different experiments by various authoritarian rulers, but notwithstanding the use of brute force and state manipulation, the overwhelming majority has demonstrated repeatedly that this multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic state can only be governed by a freely-elected parliamentary system. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, the need is to recognise the value of our votes and use it to strengthen our institutions, rather than our individuals.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 2nd, 2013.