Egyptians fill their Tahrir Square in protest with a relentless vigour and intensity, but the military-backed interim government seems on the verge of slipping deeper into authoritarianism. /Photograph Hassam El-Hamalawy Flickr
Egyptians fill their Tahrir Square in protest with a relentless vigour and intensity, but the military-backed interim government seems on the verge of slipping deeper into authoritarianism. /Photograph Hassam El-Hamalawy Flickr

 

At the beginning of the Arab Spring two years ago, Egypt played a promising role in igniting a series of popular uprisings that spread across North Africa. In January 2011, 50 000 Egyptians crowded Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the legitimacy of Hosni Mubarak’s government, which had been in power for 30 years. Months of prolonged protests—which at one point swelled to nearly 300 000 people, according to Al Jazeera—in Tahrir Square, as well as protests elsewhere across the country, finally forced Mubarak to step down. 

With a population of 85 million people—larger than the UK, Germany, France, and Iran—Africa’s largest economy (third-largest in the Middle East), and a median age of 25, Egypt’s revolutionary impulse signalled a hopeful turning point for a democratic transformation across the region. 

Now, in what some call a return to the authoritarianism of the Mubarak regime, the military-backed government has made controversial amendments to the constitution that are to be approved by referendum in December or January. 

 

Morsi: Hopes dashed

Mohammed Morsi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, came to power in June, 2012, as the first democratically-elected and Islamist president in June 2012. His supporters still see him as the legitimate president of Egypt. 

Many Egyptians—90 per cent of whom identify as Islamic—then believed that Morsi could represent the people in a step towards Western-style democracy, but that he would also remain true to the religious and moral values of the community through political Islam.  

In late November 2012, his success in mediating a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel caught the attention of the Arab world and the international community.

But trouble began just one day later. Though he had succeeded in foreign policy, domestic policy failed him. On November 22, Morsi issued a decree granting him sweeping powers and immunity from judicial review in an attempt to stabilize the country while forcing through a new constitution, which met fierce opposition. 

In Tahrir Square, protesters quickly resumed demonstrations. Many felt that he hijacked the revolution to consolidate his own power.  Morsi argued that this temporary move would lay the foundations for a new democracy and return the country to stability.

He would later rescind this power grab, but he never recovered his legitimacy in the eyes of the people. 

 Military launches popular coup

This impasse reached a breaking point in July. The country was at a standstill as open revolution raged in the streets. Morsi remained in power by right of position only. He had lost the support of the majority of Egyptians.  Morsi’s aim to hold onto power at all costs led to the arrest and killings of protesters, journalists, and activists.

The military arrested the president and effectively took control of the country.  This was a coup, which the military said was backed by the will of the people.  Paradoxically, this takeover was seen as a necessary protector and usurper of democracy.

 

Military amends constitution

The military-backed government claims to be restoring democracy by ousting Morsi, but his democratic election makes this notion problematic. Their heavy-handed tactics enforced to quell dissent—such as issuing restrictive laws against protests, killing 1000 Islamist protesters since July, and banning the Muslim Brotherhood—are transparently undemocratic.

The new constitutional changes do little to satisfy the military establishment’s critics. 

Morsi adopted revisions to the original 1971 constitution last year, which many Islamists consider the legitimate legal basis for the country. In September, the interim government initiated a 50-member constitutional assembly, which included few Islamists and only women. 

Although the latest draft keeps Sharia law as its legal basis, its ban on political parties based on religion is sure to raise ire. 

Human rights activists criticize the constitution for continuing to allow civilians to be tried in military courts. 

Analysts say that the constitution could allow for the military to further consolidate power, but in the presidency. It is unclear, once the referendum is ratfied, whether the interim president will choose presidential elections or parliamentary elections to come first; the outcome of the decision could expedite the election of Egypt’s de facto leader, Gen.  Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, defense minister.

Yet it is natural that the pace of change has slowed following the fecundity of the Arab Spring.  The liberals and the Islamists, both marginalized for many years under the tyranny of Mubarak, are fearful of losing what they fought so hard to gain, possibly united in their demands that the long grip of dictatorship must end.

Although the youth continue to organize mass rallies and call the people to protest,  they struggle to find ways to participate within the political process itself. The Islamists, however, are unable to meet the demands of a population that increasingly places the importance of individual freedoms, human rights, and the participation of women in society, above the voice of the ummah (the Islamic community).  For Egypt to truly move forward, an integrative approach must be adopted that accounts for the values of both sides. 

For all the negative headlines, a new openness does exist. Political Islam brings issues that are important to many Egyptians to the forefront. Concern about religion and the role of women have entered into public debate through the voice of newly aggressive news media channels and a civil society that demands to be heard.  

There has been great turmoil over the past two years, but hope cannot be lost. 

Throughout history great change has always been accompanied by unrest and destruction when the grip of the past refuses to let go. Much has gone wrong but as a new year beckons the potential for so much to go right remains very strong. 

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