Canberra, 13 December 2012
The Middle East is in the grip of convulsive volatility. There is a rising tide of Islamism and a parallel struggle to establish a ‘new’ order with the younger generation unwilling to accept a status quo situation built on the largess of autocratic rulers. Most of the nations are trying to balance these two incompatible forces in order to maintain stability—some have already failed and some are still struggling. Egypt is in turmoil and the ultimate arbiter seems to be the military, although their ability to act unilaterally to stabilise the nation has been eroded in the past two years and is not guaranteed any more. The Bashar al Assad regime in Syria is in its death throes with no alternative governing body in sight to ensure a stable transition. Jordan, the Hashemite kingdom, is struggling to contain the demands of the Muslim Brotherhood-led opposition for further concessions and there is rising and open calls for the monarchy to step down. The Palestine Authority, even after achieving a Pyrrhic victory in the United Nations by gaining observer status, is increasingly becoming irrelevant in its own backyard. The road that Egypt treads in the immediate future is the key to understanding the direction the gradually destabilising Middle East will take, for Egypt is without doubt, the cornerstone of the Middle East.
Just a few weeks ago Egypt and its new President Mohammed Morsi were the sinecure of the world for having successfully negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas that brought to an end an increasingly violent conflict. However, a day after this historic achievement, Morsi announced a unilateral decree giving himself sweeping powers and placing him above legal oversight. Overnight, the President went from being the darling of the crowds to being the focus of protests reminiscent of those in January 2011 that had led to the ouster of President Mubarak. This dramatic change in the environment has brought two questions to the fore. They are, ‘Where is Egypt headed towards?’ and ‘Has the nation squandered a golden opportunity to reform?’ The answers to these are complex and mired in the influence of history, contemporary events and the deep seated cultural ethos of the people that is significantly influenced by religion.
Two Issues
There are two major issues that constantly hold back any attempt at implementing a fast paced but long-term reform program, which unfortunately does not exist. The first issue that must be addressed is whether or not the concept of democracy, as practiced in the Western nations, has a place within the byzantine and multi-faceted society that makes up Egypt. The studied answer would have to be a qualified yes, and a not so qualified no. Yes, to bringing in the fundamental concept of democracy, no to adopting the manner in which it is implemented in Western societies. Democracy in its purest form of guaranteeing individual freedoms may take more time to become accepted in a nation that has so far not known the concept of complete freedom. In combination with a society that has always been dictated to, it is safe to assume that ‘free’ democracy will take a great deal of nurturing to take root and flourish. On the other hand, a kind of directed democracy, successfully practiced in a number of states across the world, that adapts democratic values to cater for the societal ethos may well meet the needs and demands of the people and succeed where other types may not. Egypt is in transition and it must be permitted a much broader leeway than otherwise if changes of lasting influence are to take hold.
The second issue is that Egypt has not been able to avoid the pitfall of having to function under the influence of the previous regime. In fact the previous regime is still extremely influential in many strategic and vital power centres of the state and is effective in shaping public opinion. (The details are discussed later in the paper.) Whether this is a good or a bad thing will depend on individual viewpoints, but it will be correct to say that there is some good ideas that could be adopted, for example a secular approach to politics and governance, and some bad concepts that must be discarded, for example an extreme autocratic form of government that is devoid of any moral authority. However, the current situation makes it nearly impossible for the new government to function normally, with the result that every single decision is questioned by at least one of the number of political parties that have mushroomed in the aftermath of the ‘revolution’. The arguments and disagreements are not only against the government, but also against each other and even against the fledgling political structure that is still not robust enough to withstand such concerted attacks. In such a scenario it becomes even more difficult to decrease the influence of the institutions of the past and they in turn could continue to effectively resist and distort the political change that ultimately must take place.
The Current Upheaval
The Constituent Assembly and the newly drafted constitution are at the core of the current upheaval in Egypt.
The Constituent Assembly. There are four issues that make the Constituent Assembly less than the ideal organisation to lead the transition: there is allegation that the current Assembly is dominated by Islamists bent on instituting an Islamic agenda even after it has already been dissolved once in April 2012 by the courts when it was dominated by Islamists; the first Assembly also had many Parliamentarians, which was expressly forbidden by the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration that gives the Assembly its legitimacy; even the second Assembly has 60 Islamists amongst the 100 members, when only 67 votes in support are required to pass each article of the draft constitution; and since the Parliament which formed the Constituent Assembly was dissolved on 14 June and the Assembly was formed in 14 July, there is an argument that it is illegitimate.
The Constitution. The draft Constitution is being rushed through and its opponents believe that this is being done to create an ‘Islamic’ state. There are many contentious issues that the opposition want taken out, debated or diluted to ensure that the Constitution is maintained within the bounds of secularity. The major contentious issues are: the role of women, who are given equality in the preamble, which is then contradicted later in the text with its emphasis on preserving ‘the genuine character of the Egyptian family…’, which is interpreted as a direct code for confining the role of women purely to the home; religious freedom, which the draft Constitution restricts to the practice of monotheistic religions raising fears that already embattled minorities like the Bahai’s will face immediate persecution; freedom of speech, where there are provisions in the Constitution for the government to enforce heavy editorial censorship and also the potential to limit the freedom of the press based on ambiguous clauses like ‘basic principles of the state and the society’; the role of Islam and how Sharia will relate to legislation, which states that the Sharia will be enforced according to the established practices of the Sunni Muslim doctrine, that essentially limits the discretion given to judges in interpreting the law of the land and the Sharia; and the status of the military forces that continue to remain a holy cow, with the Constitution protecting its budget from Parliamentary oversight, the need to consult the military leadership in matters relating to military law, the post of defence Minister being reserved for a serving military officer, and perhaps most controversially, permitting the continuation of the policy of civilians being tried in military courts for crimes that ‘harm’ the military ‘as defined by law’.
It is obvious that there a number of well-founded reasons for the opposition to be concerned about the direction the new administration is taking and to continue to agitate. However, the President’s rush to have the Constitution finalised and endorsed could perhaps be understood if viewed within the prism of the following three factors—one, the dissolution of the Parliament Assembly in June 2011, and the Constituent Assembly in April 2012; two, the constant threat by the judges to dissolve the current Assembly; and three, the failure of the courts, dominated by Mubarak-era judges to prosecute or convict any of the persons accused of masterminding anti-protestor activities during the January 2011 ‘revolution’. Further, only after a new constitution is enshrined can the President claim to have brought in at least a semblance of democratic change, upon which depends the flow of economic aid vital to the stability of the nation. The President, it is believed, wants the process of democratisation, even within the confines of a flawed constitution, to proceed with the implicit understanding that the shortfalls and deficiencies can be addressed later, whereas the opposition is calling for redrafting of the constitution to fix the flaws now, before they are enshrined and become difficult to amend, especially in the wake of the election of a Islamic majority government. With both sides unwilling to compromise, the situation remains in limbo with no possible winners and the state slowly descending into chaos.
The Power of the ‘Old Regime’
The Egyptian judiciary, economy, media and security apparatus are still very heavily influenced and populated by the Mubarak-era leadership. President Morsi tried to discharge the Public Prosecutor and was surprised that he could not do so, because the law (Mubarak-era) does not permit it. Although the President did indeed manage to subsequently remove the Prosecutor, it demonstrated the deep seated control of the old time judiciary in legal matters of the state. The economy is still almost fully controlled by the people who had frown ‘rich’ during the Mubarak regime. They wield considerable clout and are increasingly acting in solidarity with each other to protect their interests. It may be a while (years) before the distribution of wealth can be considered more equitable which will only be the first step to gradually neutralise the power and influence of this entrenched ‘wealthy’ elite. The media in Egypt is still dominated by the supporters of the former regime and there are allegations that the ‘rich elite’ are now providing growing support to the media to take up anti-government propaganda. In these conditions, any reform that goes against the power base of the old regime will be thwarted at every stage and possibly not allowed to take root. The President’s dismissal of the Military Council that ran the country after Mubarak was ousted was a single great step towards democratisation. However, the military has a structure that is deeply embedded and percolates into all aspects of the state that cannot be easily dislodged. The timing of the intervention of the military in the past few days to restrict and contain the protests is a clear indication of the fact that the military is still its own master. Once again, such an entrenched position will be extremely difficult to undermine, especially when the political leadership is itself factionalised and divided.
The turmoil in Egypt could well have been anticipated as the normal progression of the aspirations of the people to have a say in the running of their nation. Where the fundamental structures of the state polity and society are being demolished and new foundations being laid, resistance will always be a by-product; Egypt proves the point. The transitional period is likely to be long and hard for Egypt, creating the potential for increased political polarisation to the detriment of the establishment of a democratic process that suits the peculiar requirements of this nation. In this imbroglio the people of Egypt will be the sufferers. Viewed nearly two years after the first ‘revolution’ one is inclined to believe that the removal of Mubarak was only one half, albeit a critical half, of it. The other half has not yet begun. There is no compromise in sight from the stand-off between the government and the opposition regarding the referendum on the new constitution—the country faces an uncertain future and the signs indicate further political upheavals. Even if the referendum goes ahead and the draft constitution wins a favourable vote, there is no guarantee that the courts will not overrule the referendum itself. More chaos would follow, and the Egyptian movement towards a democratic government would have gone back to the starting line—with only a number of wasted opportunities to show for all the effort! Realising democracy—as a nation where all people are equal, where the society accepts secularity and individual freedoms as ideals—has never been an easy task. The Egyptians are slowly waking up to this incontrovertible truth.   

About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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