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Egypt’s Revolution Turns One

Princy Marin George was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 10, 2012

    The first anniversary of the start of mass uprisings in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak from power was marked by demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the public town square in downtown Cairo, which has been the focal point of activities during the one-year revolution. In comparison to the approximately 50,000 protesters who first occupied the square on January 25, 2011, this day witnessed demonstrations and protests across several cities, mainly calling for a swift handover of power from the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) - that took over following President Mubarak’s resignation - and the prosecution of those responsible for the killing of close to a thousand civilians during the past year. In the context of the anniversary protests, three dominant aspects require closer inspection: (a) a notable divergence between those willing to compromise with military rule or even favouring it, and those wanting an immediate end to it; (b) the Parliamentary elections that saw the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm emerge as the winner of majority seats; and (c) factors surrounding the continuing rule of the military council.

    As opposed to the singular cause of last year’s protests, the anniversary demonstrations have revealed multiple lines of discord, most importantly, between those inclined towards compromising with military rule, ending protests that have obstructed normal life for a year, and waiting for a peaceful transition to a parliamentary democracy, and those who see the military as blocking reforms to hold on to power and thus wanting its swift exit. Following parliamentary elections that were held over a course of six weeks beginning November 28, 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood is celebrating its win of majority seats; its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) won 45 per cent of the seats. The Salafist al-Nour1 party stood second winning 22 per cent of the seats.2 Although the Mubarak-led National Democratic Party (NDP) was dissolved in April 2011, former members of the party were allowed to run in the parliamentary elections and won roughly five per cent votes. The fear that felool – Arabic for “remnants”3 - of the Mubarak regime can still vie for power in the new political system is shared by many Egyptians.

    The completed voting cycle elected 498 members to the People’s Assembly, with 10 additional members to be appointed by the ruling military council. (Elections to the Upper House or the Shura Council will take place in stages, the first of which was completed in early February). The newly-elected Parliament held its first inaugural session on January 23, 2012. Its first priority will be to appoint a 100-member Constituent Assembly that will draft a new Constitution for Egypt which will then be put to a vote in a nationwide referendum.

    Despite some reports of violations in balloting, the elections have been seen as largely free and fair for the first time in six decades, with more than 62 per cent turnout. That the majority seats were won by the FJP and the al-Nour indicates that the Islamists will wield most influence in the drafting of the new Constitution, which is expected to be ratified by the end of June 2012 before the presidential elections take place. (Presidential hopefuls include former Arab League Secretary General and Foreign Minister [under Mubarak], Amr Moussa, and current Arab League Secretary General, Nabil El-Arabi).

    The uncertainty lies in the course that the FJP and the Muslim Brotherhood will take in the coming year. Concerns about their future role revolve around the possibility of the Muslim Brotherhood institutionalising Sharia law using the democratic system, its stance on the rights of women (its recent statement that it will not support women or non-Muslims - specifically Coptic Christians - to stand for Egypt’s presidency has raised some concern), and its position on key foreign policy issues, such as Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and its relations with Western countries, the United States in particular. (Egypt is the second largest recipient of economic and military aid from the United States, after Israel, and is set to receive close to US$ 1.3 billion in 2012.) It will most likely not be as supportive of US and Israeli interests in the region as Mubarak was.4

    The Muslim Brotherhood has been banned for decades following a failed assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1954; nevertheless, the organisation, comprising of over 300,000 members, has a large support base and has clearly evolved over time. It runs a large number of social and charitable organisations including schools, hospitals and businesses. It has not engaged in violent activity since 1970 and has largely taken part in political processes through members running for Parliament as independent candidates. The organisational ideology is based on Islamic governance, with no clear separation between religion and political life.5 For a political organisation of its size and history, it is naturally composed of those with hardline, reformist, and centrist views, and is certainly not a monolith (as it tends to be viewed outside the region). Analysts see the possibility of parliamentary democracy having a moderating influence on the organisation’s ideology because of the need in such a system to accommodate differing interests and visions.

    Following the recent elections, the Muslim Brotherhood has been seen as leaving its options open for the long term by keeping to a vague rhetoric that projects short-term pragmatism on critical domestic and regional issues.6 But it may also be cautious enough in its new role in Egypt’s future governance, to not risk its hard-earned reputation among Egyptians as a deep-rooted and widely-respected social and political organisation. The Brotherhood’s executive branch, the Ikhwan Guidance Bureau, has stated its vision for Egypt as a “… civil state, based on Islamic principles. A democratic state, with a parliamentary system, with freedom to form parties, press freedom, and an independent and fair judiciary."7 With no previous precedent of the Muslim Brotherhood holding majority power in Egypt’s political system, it is difficult to foresee how the organisation will adapt and make use of its new role in the backdrop of the vibrant aspirations of Egypt’s newly-emerged revolutionaries and activists.

    The focus of the most recent demonstrations has shifted from the Mubarak regime to the military council that has been in power since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, 2011. In a possible attempt to defuse anger at continuing military rule, the SCAF announced, on January 25, the pardoning of around 2,000 civilians who were convicted in military courts for their role in the protests. At least 12,000 civilians are estimated to have been tried before military tribunals since the SCAF took power.8 In a televised address, the head of the SCAF, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, also announced a partial lifting of the emergency law that has been in force in Egypt through Mubarak’s 29-year rule; the laws remain applicable to “thugs”, a term not clarified by the SCAF but one that has, in the past, been used by the military to refer to anti-government protesters. Tantawi was Defence Minister for 20 years in the Mubarak regime and, along with the other generals of the SCAF, was known for his unwavering loyalty to the former president.

    The council has so far successfully conducted parliamentary elections and set a timetable for presidential elections and the ratification of a new Constitution. But many Egyptians see the council’s rule as an extension of Mubarak’s three-decade reign. With the anniversary demonstrations calling for an immediate end to military control, human rights organisations have highlighted the large-scale human rights violations and use of excessive, and sometimes deadly, force against unarmed protesters by military forces. Egypt has fallen in press freedom rankings for 2011. In early December 2011, the army conducted raids on foreign-funded local and US-based pro-democracy and human rights organisations, claiming it was doing so to prevent foreign interference in the country’s affairs. The raids were seen as an attempt to intimidate and stifle reports on the army’s heavy handedness during the year-long protests. Moreover, there is no clear estimation of the number of secret detentions, disappearances, and torture of protesters, journalists, lawyers, and other government opponents - the figures range in the hundreds or thousands. Estimates are difficult to confirm since the army is not acknowledging the arrests. It has consistently rejected responsibility for the killings of protesters, blaming unknown “third parties” or unnamed foreign powers as the source of unrest in Egypt over the past year.9 The army’s crackdown, seen as a campaign to deter intensified demonstrations against military rule, has to some degree tainted its image as the chief protector of the nation among Egyptians.10 Following violence at a football match last week that left at least 74 dead and hundreds injured, and continued clashes between protesters and the military, Egyptians are left questioning whether a civilian or military administration would be better equipped to manage the unstable security situation in the country.

    Following the parliamentary elections, youth groups have accused the Muslim Brotherhood and the FJP of collaborating with the military for political advantage. Analysts see the creation of a balanced interactivity between any nascent political system and the military as necessary for a stable Egypt, one that will still preserve a significant role for the military, albeit an adapted one. For most Egyptians, the symbolism of the revolution and the elections are as important, if not more, than the outcomes of these. For Egypt, the year ahead is dotted with uncertainties and will largely be determined by the eventualities of the dynamics between political and military actors.