25 January 2012, 16:42

Revolution in Egypt - a year on

Revolution in Egypt - a year on
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This Wednesday Egypt has marked the first anniversary of the Tahrir revolution that eventually ousted President Hosni Mubarak who ruled the country for 30 years. Though Mubarak is currently under trial, the military is still in power. So, what has actually changed in Egypt over the turbulent year?

This Wednesday Egypt has marked the first anniversary of the Tahrir revolution that eventually ousted President Hosni Mubarak who ruled the country for 30 years. Though Mubarak is currently under trial, the military is still in power.

So, what has actually changed in Egypt over the turbulent year? What are the challenges the country is facing and what would be the most efficient way to address them?

These are the issues we’ve been discussing with our guest speakers Dr. Omar Ashour, head of the Middle East Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, U.K., Ambassador Aleksey Podtserob, currently based with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, Russia, and Christian Wolff, researcher at the Department of Political Science at Friedrich Alexander University in Germany.

Egypt is marking 1 year into the revolution with official celebrations organized by the Military Council and protests staged by the opposition rallying against the generals who are still at the helm of the country.

The human cost of revolution is around 846 people that were killed during the uprising.

That’s the smallest estimate as far as I understand. But to be fair over the year that has been marked by major unrest the Military Council has still succeeded in taking at least some steps towards democracy. The general election has been held, the Lower Chamber of the National Assembly has been sworn in already. The state of emergency that has been in place since the early 1980s has been partially lifted.

Just to remind our listeners, the emergency laws introduced in 1981 extending the powers of the police after Islamists assassinated president Anwar Sadat and Mubarak took power.

In September 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces faced with growing unrest, in fact, widened the scope of the emergency law, which in 2010 was restricted to narcotics and terrorism. The scope was wide into strikes, traffic disruption and the spreading of rumors. So, obviously at least the partial lifting of this law is to be considered as some success.

So, there are some definite signs of progress there but besides all that the Military Council has also promised to release 1959 prisoners convicted by Military Court since the beginning of the uprising a year ago.

However, the opposition still stages protests saying these steps don’t change anything fundamental. They are saying that those who are against the army remain against, and those who are supportive still support it. But I don’t think it is a really constructive policy. I mean, the army per se is not to be regarded as a target in this situation. Because more unrest would produce less security and that would deter international investors obviously.

And it would hit the economy as well with the lack of the security situation.

Besides the military are saying that they would stay in power as soon as the president is elected and a new constitution drawn, so the presidential elections are scheduled to be held by the end of June, I suppose.

Coming back to the military, of course, they were at the helm of the Egyptian politics since the fall of the monarchy in 1952 and in fact every president has emerged from the top military establishment.

So, that means that this is some kind of tradition. But that also implies that the military do have extensive powers in that country, which many people feel should be limited. And getting back to changes, the newly elected National Assembly is tasked with writing the constitution and one of its first tasks in fact is to select a committee that will write the new constitution, if I get it right.

To be more precise, first there’s going to be elections for Parliament’s Upper House, to the Shura Council, which are to begin later this month. Then two chambers will elect 100-member panel that will draft the new constitution.

That takes care of the political change. But there is also another major challenge, which is the worsening economic situation because obviously the unrest, like we said, has scared off tourists and foreign investors, so the number of tourists fell by 33% last year and foreign investment is at its lowest level since March 2005.

In fact, on January 16th Egypt requested a 3.2 billion dollar loan from the IMF to sustain the economic growth, I suppose.

So, overall it looks like the country is in a very difficult situation and we asked our guest speaker Dr. Omar Ashour, head of the Middle East Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, to tell us more about the changes and challenges faced by Egypt.

Dr. Ashour, how would you assess the outcome of the year into the revolution?

This revolution was miraculous, it removed the head of dictatorial regime and it aimed for retaining the dignity, the freedom, bread and social justice for the Egyptian people. It has very high aims and it made some very significant achievements in the Egypt's history. But not all the objectives were retained. Today, one year later we aim again for democracy, for democratic change, we aim for freedom, we aim for dignity and we have some of that but not the whole transition, one year is not enough. Now there is elected Parliament in Egypt, hopefully there will be presidential elections and there are still many Egyptians who want to see more from the revolution.

What do you think is essential to maintain the progress that has been achieved already?

It is time to institutionalize the revolution, to have elected representatives to keep monitoring those elected representatives to have a full transfer of power from the military rulers – the generals to the elected civilians whether in the form of the Parliament, or in the form of the presidency, and to write constitution to entwine the powers of the elected Assembly and the elected President. We need also that the Government either to be appointed by the Parliament or the President to deal with some very salient issues in the country – mainly the security issue and the economic issue. So, we need some very creative way to deal with these two very thorny issues. And we need also the army to step backwards, because now it is time for a civilian rule that can be held accountable by the Egyptian people.

How do you see the prospects of cooperation between Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour in the Parliament?

It is very unlikely. I think the Muslim Brothers will have different priorities at the moment. And I think al-Nour Party may also have different priorities, al-Nour will be looking at pushing the socio-conservative agenda possibly and form some legislation that support that agenda, while the Muslim Brotherhood at the moment are concerned with how to give the military package, to get them out of politics whether through legal and constitutional immunity, whether in the form of leaving their economic and industrial empire untouched and untaxed and unaudited. So, they have different priorities at the moment and likelihood of forming the coalition is minimal.

Has there been an economic agenda for the coming years?

That’s one of the most difficult questions. There have been a few attempts by Muslim Brothers to enhance Egyptian investments and try to get some foreign direct investments from abroad – whether from Turkey or Qatar or even to create some jobs in Libya for Egyptians. So, it’s a very pressing subject but it will need a lot of work because currently the Egyptian economy has been deteriorating with severe leaders here.

Do I get it right that you are inviting foreign investors to the country?

Yes, I think it is a chicken and egg problem – you need to solve the security problem to be able to get the foreign investors. Without solving this problem you won’t see foreign investors. The other thing is obviously the army assets, which is a black hole in the Egyptian economy, we don’t know whether it is making money or losing money because there is no balance sheet in the end of the year. We don’t know whether most of these investments are civilian investments or military investments. Civilian industries but owned by the military and all of them, they are not tax free and customs free, they have differential exchange rates. The whole package are very much enriching the military, not enriching the generals specifically, but not enriching the Egyptian treasury and therefore it losses. So, once we want enriching we are to try to renegotiate this package deal focusing on taxation, on removing the land complicated rights, like the army can’t take any peace of land in Egypt and doesn’t take the treasury for it. So, we have all these significant structural, economic reforms that need to be done and at the moment we are not sure if they are going to be applied by the Parliament or not.

With the Muslim Brotherhood gaining the majority in the Parliament and we can also see that similar processes have been on in the neighbouring countries. Just how do you see the role of the new Egypt in the regional politics?

I think among the issues that will be contested is how much power the Parliament and the elected President will have on foreign policy issues because as for the army the relationship with Israel is very sensitive and I think it has to do with national security which is quite sensitive and they will want a say in it. For the Muslim Brothers, obviously they came on a platform where tough diplomacy with Israel is a possibility. They have supporters whether in Hamas in Gaza or elsewhere and they would like to maintain that support, they’ve been promising their followers to take up the Palestinian course for a long time. But we’ll see, it will be one of those areas that will have some tensions between the elected politicians and the military. But I also think we will see much change in Egypt foreign policy in terms of the relationships with the Arab world, in terms of further relationships with Israel. There will be some changes in the rhetoric and probably changes in some of the policies but overall the behavior will be the same.

As far as I understand one of the top Egyptian officials was traveling to Libya recently, with Libya in a stage of transition. So, how do you see the relations between Libya and Egypt evolving?

I think there will be very strong economic and possibly social and popular tie with Libya as always. The reason is that revolution happened in both countries and toppled both regimes, there was a very strong solidarity among Egyptians with the Libyan people during the struggle against the Gaddafi’s dictatorship. And there is a lot of will to interact with Libyans, to help out the Libyans. But also on the economic level there is a lot of will, we have too many Egyptian workers in Libya, that they will retain back their jobs and help in rebuilding Libya at the moment.

 And I think this is one of the key issues that the Government or some of the parliamentarians, especially the Muslim Brothers, they will also have the majority in any Libyan Parliament that will be coming. So, the things between the two sides will help to foster better economic relations and better social relations. I think that probably we will be seeing some economic integration projects and hopefully stronger ties with Libya and with Tunisia, obviously these are two countries that witnessed successful revolutions.

So many challenges we have been talking about now. Tell me, how would you define the constructive way the Egyptian opposition might act to promote the changes, not to stall the changes?

I think the two critical issues are – one containing the ideological polarization in the Parliament, so that we won’t have a Parliament that is divided and fighting among each other instead of fighting the democracy battle.

The other thing is how to put back the military in the box, how to say that the military is very much concerned with the national security issues, with defending the country, but it should not be concerned with politics, it is not an elected institution, does not necessarily reflect the will of the Egyptian people and how to put it back at its right place – these will be the two challenges. No democratic transition becomes successful without having the elected civilians in control of the military establishment and in control of the security establishment. And this did not happen in Egypt before.

 And the third thing is the economy question, which is I think here in Egypt the social justice is very important. And right now that you have extreme wealth disparities with a small, possibly 0.1% of the population which is very, very rich, about 40% under poverty line and the rest are in between. This situation obviously is quite critical and will be addressed by the revolution in one way or another to crack down corruption and to start to foster better economic ties with neighbours, and then therefore better prosperity for the Egyptians.

Just to remind you, our guest speaker was Dr. Omar Ashour, head of the Middle East Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, U.K.

And now we can move to the next section of our program, which is the Burning Point press desk.

To open it, I’d like to quote from an interesting opinion piece written by Mohamed A El-Erian, the author of “When Markets Collide”. It’s been published by the Gulf Times. It’s entitled “Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution Will Succeed”. Just to quote from it, “Egyptians will not settle for an incomplete revolution – not now, and especially not after all of the sacrifices that have been made.

Completing their revolution will be not an easy, quick, or smooth process, but it will happen. Any attempt to divert this legitimate process will be met by millions of Egyptians taking to the streets in protest. Make no mistake: Egyptians are committed to completing their impressive revolution, and they will.”

That’s an upbeat forecast.

Now for something a little less upbeat, more sobering, there was an editorial in the Lebanon Daily Star, and it was called “Somber Anniversary”. Just to read from it, “There are certainly positive aspects to Egypt’s one-year mark. But aside from these bright spots, Egypt faces a set of stern challenges and worrying developments.

Egypt’s new parliament has convened to elect a new speaker and top deputies. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist Movement claimed two out of these three spots, including the important speaker’s post.

It was an alarming signal that Islamist movements are intent on introducing divisive changes into Egyptian political life, when more serious challenges await.

The economy of Egypt is in freefall and since stability remains a problem, there is little hope that the important sector of tourism will recover soon. Foreign investment also requires a level of stability and coherent public policy, so until a new Constitution and full civilian rule appear, little incentive exists for foreign parties to risk their money.”

So, overall the situation in Egypt is seen as extremely sensitive and even quite controversial. This is something we discussed with our next guest speaker Ambassador Aleksey Podtserob, currently based with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, Russia.

You see, I believe that the situation is rather complicated, and that’s why it’s rather difficult to appreciate it from one side. Of course there is a movement with the democracy, of course it’s absolutely clear, because there were parliamentary elections, and now we are waiting for presidential elections. And for the first time there were really democratic elections. Of course it is a positive thing.

But there are some negative things - first of all in the economical field. It means that the economical situation didn’t improve during this year. On the contrary we see that tourism is in a crucial situation, there is a decrease in the number of tourists and tourism is very important for the Egyptian economy.

From the other side we see increasing of the fundamentalist or the Salafi Islamists. I don’t speak about the Muslim Brotherhood, because they aren’t Salafi, it’s a moderate political party. But I speak about al-Nour and we saw that they achieved success during the last elections. About the prospects, it is very difficult to say, because in many cases I believe that the key is the economical situation. If the economical situation continues to decline, it may be used by al-Nour, so it’s the danger. But in any case we will see.

It’s interesting that the opposition seems to be quite unhappy with the developments, but now as we can see Islamist parties holding the majority in the new Parliament, so what is the opposition? What is its composition?

They organized the protests on the streets and they are very active. From one side there are the young people, from the other side there are representatives of some traditional parties. Of course they are active, but I don’t believe that they have big influence now in Egypt. That is my impression in any case.

Just to remind you, our guest speaker was Ambassador Aleksey Podtserob, currently based with the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, Russia.

Of course, opposition is one thing, but then there’s also the situation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist from al-Nour, which could develop into some kind of a standoff.

In the new Parliament you mean?

That’s right.

That’s interesting. And this is something we’ve been discussing with our nest guest speaker Christian Wolff, researcher at the Department of Political Science at Friedrich Alexander University in Germany.

With the Muslim Brotherhood now holding a majority in the new Parliament of Egypt how do you think this is going to affect the situation in the political arena in Egypt, or perhaps it does not, because as we all know Muslim Brotherhood has been presented in the political elite before? So, how is it?

Well, I think like the Muslim Brotherhood is a political actor in Egypt that can rely on a great portion of authenticity, because it was always against the regime and therefore it is a kind of resistance. And the Muslim Brotherhood is similar persistent against the authoritarian regime. And in my opinion it is a kind of symbolic line of stability, of security that will guide most of the people through these revolutionary circumstances, because nowadays and last year the situation in Egypt was unstable – everything was changing, nobody knew where it will go and everything and Brotherhood is a kind of stable actor in this process. So, I hope that the Brotherhood will stay moderate and will guard this process of developing a new constitution, and be the actor that reflects or represents most of the Egyptian people.

How do you think they are going to develop their relations with al-Nour Party?

I think they will not come into coalition with al-Nour Party, because al-Nour Party is not the enemy, but they are far more religious than the Muslim Brotherhood definitely is. Al-Nour Party is more or less the radical opposition to the state, and it is not important what kind of state this is, it’s not important if this is an authoritarian state like we had under Mubarak, or if this is a democratic state. They are more or less the radical opposition, and the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be active in the state, they want to develop, they want to change things and they want to participate within the framework of the state. And that is the kind of difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Nour Party. So, I don’t think that they will come together closely. Maybe in some small questions, on some religious issues but they will not work together. And I personally hope that this year’s success for al-Nour Party will just be a short success.

When we were talking about the last general election under Mubarak regime, many experts were telling me that the Muslim Brotherhood was banned, because it had been present at the Parliament before, when they were participating in the election just as independent candidates. So, that might imply that Muslim Brotherhood already has extensive experience in being present at the country’s Parliament.

They do, they are a kind of trained actor in this new democratic game in Egypt, and they know how to make politics, they know how to make election campaigning, that’s why they won on my opinion besides the fact that they have this great authenticity. But, yes, as you told before, they were present in the last Parliament under Mubarak, they were present in the syndicates and everything. So, they know how to play the political game and they always stood in resistance to the regime and tried to play by the rules to overcome the regime.

Well, perhaps that would be the most constructive way to run the situation. But that curious thing for me is that the Egyptian opposition is still quite unhappy with what’s going on despite all the changes that have taken place, and the changes are many.

You know, the day when Mubarak came down people were kind of euphoric and they thought that everything will change from now on. And if we can see throughout the history of revolutions – after the revolution you have to take a long breath, because things change in small steps. And you should not forget that there were 2 million people demonstrating, but there were also about 70 million people staying at home, and those people wanted to have a change and they wanted to have a democratic system, I think, but they also wanted stability, they wanted security. And these 2 million demonstrators, those people that were euphoric for the revolution – they wanted everything in the short and fast line. But I don’t think that you can change a country as big as Egypt in short steps, you have to lower press, you have to have small steps changing the constitution, changing societal circumstances and all this. And you should not forget that since 1954 Egypt was governed by authoritarian rulers. They have to learn how to make democracy and all this, and this must be done by the so called small people, by those people that did not actively participated in the revolutionary process.

Just to remind you, our guest speaker was Christian Wolff, researcher at the Department of Political Science at Friedrich Alexander University in Germany.

And with this we end this edition of Burning Point.

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