As 2013 nears its end, the mood within Egypt is broadly ‘here we go again’. Egyptians are again being asked to vote for a new constitution representing the interests of all Egyptians regardless of religion, gender or class, during mid-January. Within six months, they will choose a new president (the third in as many years) and parliament. Polls suggest that the majority wants Army Chief General Abdul Fatah Al Sissi in the top job. However, he remains coy despite having dreamt (literally) of one day becoming his country’s leader.
Almost three turbulent years have passed since Hosni Mubarak’s iron grip was smashed, but aspirations remain elusive. That said, the political landscape is unrecognisable from this time last year when Mohammad Mursi rushed through a referendum on a heavily Islamist-weighted constitution immunising him from legal challenges. Last year’s festive season was marred by violent clashes between Mursi’s supporters and disgruntled opponents who attacked the presidential palace. Liberals who held their noses to vote for a virtual unknown in preference to a candidate they considered to be a Mubarak regime remnant were dismayed. They feared their nation’s soul was threatened by a leader loyal to an international Islamist organisation with a footprint in more than 60 countries worldwide.
Towards the end of January, Mursi imposed emergency rule, that was defied by hundreds of thousands of protestors. Al Sissi warned the state was on the brink of collapse. Mursi was in conflict with the judiciary for attempts to strip its independence and was accused of “Ikhwanisation” of the state by inserting Islamists in key positions.
By March, unrest had taken its toll on the economy. Egyptian investors and businessmen, including the nation’s second-wealthiest man Naguib Sawiris, were relocating their assets elsewhere. “What’s happening now in Egypt resembles Mussolini’s rise to power in fascist Italy,” said Sawiris from London. April saw the country in a severe state of political, social and economic paralysis. Resignation and hopelessness were dominant among the population at large during May. Then the Tamarod (Rebel) Campaign was born with the aim of collecting 15 million signatures on an anti-Mursi petition. In the event, by June 29, 22 million had signed-up. President Mursi was unfazed because, as he revealed, he was assured of backing from the US. There is a general perception among Egyptians that the Barack Obama administration funded the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power to the tune of $8 billion (Dh29.42 billion) away from Congressional oversight as part of a deal involving Egypt’s gifting of part of northern Sinai to enlarge Gaza.
June/July 2013 will go down in history as a game changer. Discontent was rife as people suffered daily electricity outages, shortages of cooking gas and hours-long queues for petrol, which was being siphoned to Gaza. General Al Sissi pleaded with the president to reach out to the opposition — a call that went unheeded. On June 30, millions turned out demanding Mursi’s ouster. The Army gave political parties 48 hours to meet people’s demands. Mursi was forcibly removed from office on July 3 and taken to a naval base in Alexandria, where he spent four months incommunicado. The street erupted with pure joy; television hosts broke down in tears of relief. Head of the Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, was appointed Interim President.
However, the nation’s euphoria was short-lived. The Muslim Brotherhood instructed its base to engage in mass demonstrations against “the coup” which expanded into two Cairo sit-ins — one around Cairo’s Rabaa Al Adawiya mosque, the other inside Al Nahda Square. Both were guarded by armed Islamist militants. Amid reports of torture inside the camps and nightly sorties by armed Islamists intent on confronting security forces, on August 14, the police moved in to clear them, resulting in 638 deaths — among them 43 police officers. A state of emergency was declared, bringing army tanks to the streets, which did not deter the Muslim Brotherhood from going on a rampage, burning churches, police stations, private homes, businesses and cars.
Egyptians were taken aback by US censure of the interim government and military, which served conspiracy theories that the Muslim Brotherhood and Obama were hand-in-glove. In October, the US announced it was cutting military aid and economic assistance to Egypt, a move that drove the country closer to Moscow with a $2 billion weapons deal in the offing. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE showed their support for the transition, providing billions of dollars in aid. Egypt’s relations with Qatar and Turkey have soured over their sympathetic stance towards Muslim Brotherhood.
Today, the Muslim Brotherhood is battling for survival; its leaders locked-up or evading arrest and confronting growing public hostility. It can no longer bring out huge numbers on Fridays. Mursi is facing trials on counts of espionage, inciting murder and collaborating with foreign organisations to break him and others out of prison.
In the meantime, the Senate has recently passed a bill permitting the US to resume its full aid package to Egypt and several countries have lifted travel restrictions, which is good news for tourism. Optimism is reflected by the bourse that recorded the highest gain since January 2011 on December 19. The future may be strewn with setbacks, but at the very least, 2014 brings with it hope.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org