CHAOS IN EGYPT—THE FALLOUTS OF DEMOCRACY

Canberra, 31 January 2013
The fledgling government of President Muhammad Morsi in Egypt has had to impose a state of emergency in three cities in the Suez region and also provide the resources to increase the army’s capability to reassert order and ensure security of the state. This action was meant to curb the violent protests that followed the sentencing of 21 people to death for involvement in violence at a football match in 2011 and resulted in police stations, public buildings and Muslim Brotherhood offices being set on fire on 25 January. The government’s attempts at quelling the protests have met with very limited success and the anarchy seems to be spreading, although at a slow pace. The authoritarian measures that the government resorted to—granting extra-legal powers to the police to enforce a declared curfew; calling out the army to assist in restoring law and order; putting in place media censorships—that effectively reintroduced martial law is reminiscent of the Mubarak era and can be considered decidedly anti-democratic. The violent protests across the country has brought about the near-collapse of the government’s authority and demonstrated the ineffectuality of the elected government.
What does this mean, and what does the future hold for Egypt? The Chief of the Army and the Defence Minister, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has publicly stated that the Egyptian government could collapse under the weight of the on-going violence and the continuing struggle between different political forces over the management of state affairs. This statement alone highlights the level of deterioration of the political and security situation of what is perhaps the most important nation in the Arab world. There are three interrelated and critical areas that will be negatively impacted by the continuing unsettled situation—politics, economy and security.
The newly formed democratic government in Egypt, led by President Morsi, is now facing an existentialist threat. The parliament is divided between the secularists and the Islamists with both groups unwilling to support true democracy. There can be different viewpoints to this stand-off situation, depending on one’s own bias. One argument is that secular forces are a necessity to have a viable and functioning democracy in a multi-religious nation, but the counter argument is that there is unwarranted focus on the Islamists and that they are being tarred as anti-democratic without sufficient cause. Irrespective of the truth of the matter, this stand-off has brought on a crisis of governance. Governing a nation of 90 million people, who are expecting miracles to be delivered to rapidly improve their lot, is not an easy task and the new government is realising it in full measure. The initial euphoria of winning the election and the support of the majority of the population has worn off with un-seeming haste. It is true that the crisis of governance is also plaguing other nation in the region. However, that is cold comfort for the Egyptian government which is facing a loss of confidence from a restive population that had the greatest expectations from it. There are two common aspects to the development of such a situation across the Arab nations. First, societies in the Arab world are being polarised by the political rise of Islamist forces, along with ethnic and other religious factions that are fundamentally in conflict with each other. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the Arab population is becoming increasingly unresponsive to governmental overtures, irrespective of the type of government in power, whether Islamist or secular, democratic or autocratic. The result has been that irrespective of the type of government, or the faction controlling it, and even when the government is not completely disfunctional, there is a popular perception that it will not be able to deliver on its promises and that there will always be partisanship at the ground level of governance. In the Middle East, distrust of government will take a long time to be dispelled.
The challenge to good governance is more a lack of shared values—in fact more the pursuit of selfish and diverse values—that manifest in an unwillingness to settle disputes through dialogue, which ideally should be the normal process in a democracy. While the inability to resolve differences is the bane of the government; the population has time and again demonstrated a proclivity to resort to protests as an irresponsible tactic to express displeasure at the government’s actions or inaction. While this attitude is a throw-back to the protests that unseated the Mubarak regime, the embedded distrust of the incumbent government rolls out into the streets at the slightest perceived wrong doing. Democratic governments will not be able to function under such constant emotional attack and a manifest lack of even short-term trust. In fact, it seems that Egyptians believe that they must protest against whatever reforms or initiatives the government tries to put in place irrespective of their merit. Actively aided by the opposition, protests have become the modus operandi to ‘topple’ the government rather than using peaceful means to attain power. In essence, Egypt has not yet understood the functioning of a democracy. Adding to the sense of unease and the approach of anarchy is the fact that the autocratic institutions that were dismantled during the transition from the Mubarak era have not been replaced with any other equally competent ones, creating the opportunity for purely self-serving groups to freely engage in violence. The ingredients are all assembled for a recipe of disaster. 
The military forces have been the cementing force in modern Egypt. However, the military is acutely aware that the imposition of martial law would be tenuous at best, even if the action is undertaken in the face of extreme internal threat to the stability of the nation. Egypt’s senior military leadership, while closely monitoring the unfolding events will be hoping that the elected representatives—both government and opposition—will act collectively to pull the country back from the brink of unmitigated chaos. If such stabilisation does not take place in the near future, it is not difficult to imagine a military intervention (I hesitate to call such an action a military coup, since a coup is basically conducted against a functioning government) since it is certain that the risks inherent in inaction in the current circumstance is far greater than the challenge of enforcing stability by the use of force. The fundamental lesson that emerges from the current political impasse is that unless democratic values are understood and well entrenched in the mindset of a people, it will be difficult to govern through a democratically elected government. Of course this does not mean that autocracy is the answer either. The future political landscape in Egypt is difficult to predict, but it can be said with a fair amount of surety that it is going to be shambolic rather than neat.
Egyptian economy has been battered over the two years of turmoil that has followed the ouster of the Mubarak regime. Even so, for the first time in its modern history, the current turbulence has directly threatened the long-term stable economic pillars of the state—the Suez Canal and the tourism industry. Although the military forces have secured the Suez Canal by itself, the heaviest protests have been in the towns of Port Said, Suez, and Ismailia. The Port Said protesters have called for a separate state to be established in the Suez region, which could be a portent of a looming civil war. The armed assault on the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo has spread palpable fear in the tourism sector, which was only in the process of recovery from the downturn brought about by the anti-Mubarak protests. This attack, in one of the most heavily guarded neighbourhoods in the city is a testimony to the deteriorating security situation and the difficulty the government is facing in building public trust. The opposition and the ruling party are at odds over the current protests and are busy playing a blame-game while trying elicit maximum political capital out of the chaos. The creation of a new activist group calling itself the Black Bloc, which the Islamic Brotherhood calls the opposition’s ‘militia’ has not helped matters. In turn, the group calls the Muslim Brotherhood ‘the regime of fascist tyranny’. It looks as if the battle lines are being clearly, if hastily, drawn for a future confrontation that will bring forth violence and mayhem.
It can be reasonably assumed that the military, which has always played a dual security and political role since Colonel Abdel Nasser’s coup more than sixty years ago is still, in the current Commander’s words, ‘the solid mass and the backbone upon which rest the Egyptian state’s pillars.’ Although General Sisi is supposed to be apolitical and wants to avoid being embroiled in political affairs, it is not impossible to imagine the military stepping forward to restore order, if they perceive that the situation is rapidly spinning out of control. The civilian leadership must take careful cognisance of the General’s subdued but clear warnings to get their act together and work for the betterment of the nation rather than squabble amongst themselves. Otherwise the Egyptian dalliance with democracy could well be a very short-lived one.  
President Morsi, for all his international diplomatic forays and successes while also enjoying a majority support even if slim and reducing, cannot afford to completely alienate the opposition. This is so because the opposition represents the liberals, secularists, the moneyed elite and the Copts, who (if they act together) can destabilise the nation sufficiently to force the government to resign, even if such a resignation happens only after a great deal of bloodletting. It has been suggested, by a number of observers and internal analysts, that a government of national unity is perhaps the only viable way forward to ensure a united, stable and democratic Egypt. This may indeed be so, but the question remains whether or not President Morsi, who is vastly enjoying his time in the sun, has the magnanimity and an unadulterated level of love of country that could transcend his affiliations with the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood and his close allegiance to their supreme leader; whether or not he can imprint his position in the history of Egypt or be condemned as one who lost a golden opportunity to lead his nation into democratic light. For an analyst (like me) the President’s answer would be difficult to guess, but for a patriot that Morsi claims to be, the answer should be crystal clear—now is the time to save the nation, there is no other choice.                      

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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