Allan Massie: Uncertainty reigns in fragile Egypt

President Mohammed Morsi's face on placards in Cairo. Picture: AP

President Mohammed Morsi's face on placards in Cairo. Picture: AP

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IF Morsi does go, it is unlikely to deliver to a quick fix for the country’s economic and social ills, writes Allan Massie

Predicting what is going to happen in Egypt over the next few days, let alone weeks and months, is rash and probably futile. At present it looks as if the army’s 48-hour ultimatum has been rejected by the elected president Mohammed Morsi and his Freedom & Justice party, which is the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Morsi has evidently been weakened. The huge crowds demonstrating against him and calling for him to go haven’t dispersed. They seem to be backed by the army – to some extent anyway – if only because the generals are alarmed and apprehensive. Most of the government ministers who do not belong to the Brotherhood have resigned. Egypt’s first experiment in representative democracy since the coup which overthrew the monarchy in 1952 seems to be stalling.

It wasn’t meant to be like this in the heady days of the Arab Spring which saw the collapse of the old regime when many of the young secular people who occupied Tahrir Square calling for the departure of the dictator Hosni Mubarak might have echoed the feeling which the news of the French Revolution of 1789 inspired in William Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ And to be young was very Heaven”. That feeling soon withered in him as the expression of the ideal of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was followed by the Terror and General Bonaparte’s coup of 1799.

The young protesters in Tahrir Square have experienced a similar disillusionment. They didn’t demonstrate against Mubarak and bring down his regime to see it replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, the Brothers had stayed in the background in the first phase of the revolution. But, as the best organised party, the Brotherhood took advantage of the collapse of the Mubarak regime. It won elections, took the lead in devising a new constitution, and then its leader Morsi, who had been imprisoned more than once by Mubarak, was elected president. The poll was generally held to be fair and Morsi has had the authority, unusual in the Arab world, that derives from a genuine democratic election.

However, things are not quite as simple as that. Nobody should doubt that Morsi and the Brotherhood have a lot of support. Nevertheless, they won these elections in part, perhaps principally, because they were the best organised party and the opposition parties were divided, unable to agree on a common agenda and a single leader. In contrast, the Brotherhood knows just what it wants: the establishment of an Islamist state. Moves towards this have distressed and angered the young secularly minded liberals and have created alarm among the religious minorities: Shia Muslims and Coptic Christians.

Most of the other grievances articulated by the protesters are unreasonable. Nobody could realistically have expected that Morsi would have been able, in a mere 12 months, to do much to solve Egypt’s deep-rooted social and economic difficulties. Even ameliorating these conditions will take years. That things are perceived as having got worse rather than better is not surprising; the desired fruits of revolution ripen slowly, if they ripen at all.

But the complaint that Morsi has been governing in the interests of his party rather than the nation is probably justified. The Brotherhood wants Egypt to be an Islamist state, and millions of Egyptians are fiercely opposed to this. If the protesters now appear to have the army on their side, this is because the generals retain Mubarak’s fear and distrust of Islamism. For many in Egypt, as in Turkey which has been engulfed by comparable protests against Erdogan’s Islamist government, Islamism – which is only one political strand of Islam, regarded with suspicion and distaste by many Muslims – is a narrow and intolerant ideology opposed to modernity. You can be a good Muslim and reject Islamism, just as you can be a good Christian and reject Biblical fundamentalism.

There are many examples of revolutions being taken over by extremists who want to go further than others engaged in the early stages of the revolution, or even to take it in a different direction. The logic of revolution often favours the extremists. That is what seemed to be happening in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power – even though it did so by means of an election.

There is very little we can be sure of, except that there is very little we can be sure of. Most of the protests have been peaceful and even good-humoured. But nobody can doubt that disaffection runs deep, even though the claim made by the organisers of the Tamarod (Rebel) movement to have obtained 22 million signatures to a petition calling for the president to step down is hard to credit. But there has been some violence: eight deaths recorded and the burning of the Brotherhood’s offices in Cairo. The army is apparently reluctant to seize power itself, partly because of the opposition this would provoke, partly perhaps because the generals have no clear idea what they would do if they assumed control. How much control, indeed, would they have?

It would be foolish for the United States or the European Union even to think of intervention, but we can’t rule out acts of folly. Today it looks doubtful that Morsi can hang on but, if he doesn’t, his departure might merely see one set of protestors replaced by another. Egypt needs social peace, a period of tranquillity, and perhaps the best hope is that the generals can knock a few heads together and set up some sort of national government sufficiently representative of the different parties and groupings to embark on a policy of reconciliation.

The fear is that while such a government might achieve a degree of political stability for a time, it would be too weak and divided to address the country’s social and economic problems. In which case it would be unlikely to last – and what then? Egyptians are experiencing the reality of the old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times!

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