Egyptians are bracing themselves for potential violence on January 25 that marks the second anniversary of a revolution that ultimately handed over power to Islamists. Opposition parties, under the umbrella of the National Salvation Front, led by Amr Mousa and Mohammad Al Baradei, are urging Egyptians to take to the streets on that day to peacefully protest an unrepresentative parliamentary upper house, an Islamist-weighted constitution — and “tyranny in the name of religion”.
If liberals are under the illusion that even a million-man turnout will force change, they are wishful thinkers. Simply put, the timing is off. Many Egyptians have lost their appetite for protest; others blame volatility on the street for their nation’s economic woes or are sick of the traffic snarl-ups such demonstrations cause.
Most crucially, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists — mainly the poor, uneducated and the ultra-religious — not only marginally outnumber the moderates, but they are also well-organised. They have remained loyal, as evidenced by the results of a referendum on a controversial government-backed draft constitution. They have been promised a decent wage, improved educational and job opportunities and cleaner streets — and they are prepared to allow President Mohammad Mursi time to deliver. However, with hunger lurking on the horizon, their patience can run out.
During the first few months of the president’s tenure, Mursi appeared to be a leader for all Egyptians and won western kudos for his statesmanlike approach to foreign affairs. Then he spoiled it all with an authoritarian, anti-democratic power-grab and attempts to stifle freedom of the media.
Moreover, he has appointed Islamist sympathisers to the Shura Council, reshuffled his cabinet to induct Islamist ministers in key positions. He has enraged judges, lawyers and prosecutors with moves to usurp their authority and has recently upset high-ranking police officers by replacing a popular interior minister with a more Brotherhood-friendly individual.
He may have peacefully sidelined the military, but its loyalty remains with the people. Rumour has it that Mursi’s relations with Defence Minister Abdul Fatah Al Sisi are fraught on several issues, including a bill permitting men known to have evaded obligatory military conscription being allowed to run in parliamentary elections. A spokesman for Egypt’s military commanders told Al Masry Al Youm the bill will not become law because “defending the country is a sacred and compulsory duty and its evaders shall not be representatives of the people”. The bill is a transparent attempt to pave the way for Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist leaders without a military service record.
Mursi’s critics contend the president takes his orders from the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide. True or otherwise, it is a perception that is growing and is not going down well in western capitals or with several Gulf states. Indicative of this was the negative reaction of the UAE to a visit by a high-level Egyptian delegation, headed by the nation’s Chief of Intelligence, bearing a presidential request for the release of Egyptian nationals accused of stealing state secrets and conspiring with the Muslim Brotherhood’s hierarchy to form an illegal Brotherhood cell on Emirati soil.
When there are hundreds of Egyptians behind bars in the UAE, the fact that the Egyptian delegation focused on the release of Brotherhood members, gave rise to accusations of partiality. In response to the UAE’s non-compliance, a Brotherhood spokesman accused prominent Emiratis — among them Lieutenant General Dahi Khalfan Tamim, Chief of Dubai Police, who has vowed to keep the Brotherhood far away from UAE shores — of supporting members of the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime.
Egypt’s ties with GCC states were further strained by a report the Times of London carried, saying that the Commander of the Iranian Quds Brigade, Major General Qasim Sulaimani, secretly met Essam Al Haddad, President Mursi’s foreign affairs assistant, during the former’s two-day visit to Cairo. The Times said the meeting was designed to send America a message. Al Haddad has since denied “these fabrications”. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that Egyptian-Iranian relations, icy during the Mubarak era, are thawing. Last Thursday, Iran’s foreign minister met President Mursi in Cairo and invited him to visit Tehran at the behest of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Needless to say, the powers that be in Israel are seething.
Alienating historical allies and friends is hardly a recipe for success when Egypt desperately requires financial assistance in terms of loans and aid to keep afloat. Qatar has been forthcoming so far, but may not continue to be if Cairo is seen to be cozying-up to Tehran. The US and the European Union (EU) can also influence the outcome of Egypt’s $4.8 billion (Dh17.65 billion) International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan application now under consideration. Someone needs to tell Egypt’s government “it’s the economy, stupid”.
If there is no light at the end of the tunnel for Egypt’s poorest, currently facing higher income and sales taxes on cigarettes and fuel, burgeoning food and medicine prices due to the Egyptian pound’s depreciation against the dollar and an increase in previously fixed “old rents”, the opposition will reap rewards that months of Friday protests failed to produce. Ideology will not silence rumbling stomachs, a truth that Muslim Brotherhood supporters will experience first-hand unless President Mursi ignores the Islamist ear-whisperers long enough to give priority to his nation’s most pressing needs.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at email@example.com