Egypt’s power struggle runs risk of sidelining the people

Thin green line. Zeinab Mohamed

The split in Egypt’s interim government could jeopardise the prospect of a democratic solution to the unrest that has plagued the country for the past two years. A proposed new law regulating political protest has pitted the conservative interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim against the more liberal deputy prime minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin. “Every one of us has to remember this day because one day people’s opinions about our government will change because of it,” Bahaa-Eldin was reported as saying in the FT.

The law would make illegal the sort of sit-in protests in Tahrir Square with which we have all become familiar over the past two years. These were the popular uprisings that toppled the government of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and Mohammed Morsi in July.

The turmoil that has raged since Morsi’s ousting on July 3 has led to a muddled response by Western governments and the world’s media. The media has largely decided that the removal of Morsi was a coup and that the military has been ruling and acting with its own interests in mind - which has involved the elimination of all resistance in post-Morsi Egypt.

This is simply not the case. Or it certainly wasn’t initially.

Rewind to the first round of presidential voting in May 2012, the voting turnout was around 44% out of the 50m registered voters, in a country with roughly 85m citizens. Morsi won the most votes with just over 5.5m votes (25% of total voters, 11% of the total number of registered voters and just 7% of the total population). Second placed Ahmed Shafiq, a former member of the preceding regime, won just over 5.2m votes (24% of total voters, 10% of the total number of registered voters and 6% of the total population). In the runoff vote in June 2012, a 26m voter turnout led to Morsi winning around 13.3m or just over 51% of the votes and Shafiq won 12.4m or just under 48% of the votes (the remaining votes were judged to be invalid).

Therefore, assuming the voting process was accurate and legitimate, Morsi had the support of roughly 27% of registered voters and just 16% of the total Egyptian population in June 2012.

Deposed: Mohammed Morsi. AP Photo/Hassan Ammar

In November 2012 Morsi passed a decree that granted him the power to make decisions to “protect” Egypt, independent of judicial oversight. This led to mass demonstrations and Morsi reacted by annulling this decree but added that the declaration was still in effect.

Meanwhile, the new majority Islamist constitutional assembly approved the revised constitution without the participation of Liberal and Christian members. This constitution committed to “instill the principle of equality” between men and women “without prejudice to the provisions of Islamic Law [or Sharia]”. The explicit notion of acting within the provisions of the Sharia meant that Morsi’s government relegated women’s rights if it were to contravene with the principles of Islam, as determined by the Muslim Brotherhood.

This point was further demonstrated in March 2013 when the Muslim Brotherhood denounced the United Nations’ call to end violence against women as it “violate[d] Sharia principles”.

In June 2013, Morsi appointed members and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as heads of 13 of Egypt’s 27 governates. The significance of these appointments was typified by the appointment of the Luxor governor, Adel Asaad al-Khayat, who was a member of the Gama'a Islamiyya’s politial wing, the Building and Development Party. The organisation was responsible for terrorist attacks in the 1990s, most notably the 1997 killing of over 60 people (mostly tourists) in Luxor’s Hatshepsut temple.

Countdown to turmoil

On June 30 the rebel Tamarod movement announced that it had secured more than 22m Egyptian signatures in support of removing Morsi, following more than a month of campaigning. The Tamarod then called for mass protests to support the movement. Duly, more than a million people took to the streets in protest against Morsi’s rule and his failure to address economic and security concerns in the country.

Strongman: General al-Sisi. Wikimedia Commons

In response, the military, headed by the Morsi-appointed minister of defence, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, issued a 48-hour deadline for Morsi and opposition leaders to reach an agreed solution to placate the national unrest. On July 1, al-Sisi invited each party to take part in a dialogue to facilitate a solution, Morsi refused. Then on July 3, al-Sisi announced that the constitution had been suspended, Morsi had been deposed, a new “road map” had been agreed with the leading opposition figures and the transitional period was headed by the chief of the judiciary Adly Mahmoud Mansour, who was sworn in on July 4.

Following Morsi’s removal, he was put under arrest and is due to be tried for his role in inciting murder and violence following the December 2012 protests and other charges, alongside his fellow senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders. This led to two major sit-ins in Cairo, one in the Rabaa al-Adawiya square and one in the Nahda square lasting six weeks. As part of this resistance, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters made frequent speeches at rallies denouncing the removal of Morsi as a coup and, on occasions, incited the crowds to violence. For example, senior Islamist Safwat Hegazy, well-known for his support of the Muslim Brotherhood, linked the deposed Islamists to the attacks taking place in the Sinai peninsula, stating that “the situation in Sinai will calm down only if president Morsi is reinstated”.

Confronting acts of terrorism

As a result, the interim government directed the interior ministry “to proceed with all legal measures to confront acts of terrorism and road-blocking” in Rabaa and Nahda - and in mid-August 2013 the security forces moved in to clear the camps. The security forces were given instruction to only use live ammunition if they or public buildings were attacked. The violence that ensued reportedly led to around 300 deaths (including around 40 police officers), according to official sources, with other sources reporting a number close to 1,000. Further, at least 25 churches were set alight by anti-military supporters in reaction to the protest camps being cleared. These protests were directed by spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed al-Beltagi, who urged his supporters to spill onto the streets in protest against the security forces.

Mansour announced last month that the road map for the future of Egypt was still on track despite the unrest, with parliamentary and presidential elections on course for early 2014. There have since been reports that al-Sisi is considering running for presidency, hinting that the military might creep into control over the country.

The prospect of an anti-protest law, together with the rumours of al-Sisi’s presidential ambitions will raise the spectre that Egypt’s 2011 revolution, in which the country shook off decades of rule by the military and its strongman, has been rolled back. However, the organised and entrenched nature of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, combined with the public’s propensity to protest if they are being marginalised, means that the future of the country must be all-inclusive. As a result, Egypt still has barriers to break through in order to stabilise and recover.

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